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Obama's Self-aware Speech

However you felt about Obama’s speech tonight, it was a highly self-aware effort. Much more so than his usual fare. For starters, Obama and his team were clearly aware that 15,000 blood-thirsty Republicans will be meeting in St. Paul next week. Had Obama spent most of the night at 30,000 feet, they would have taken great pleasure in ripping him down. Instead, he spent the first third of the speech defining McCain—a tactically shrewd move that puts the McCaniacs on the defensive and takes the target off his back.

Up to this point, Obama had a habit of pointing a finger at Washington, but not always fingering George Bush himself. Not tonight, when we heard explicitly about Bush’s failures. He then tied McCain to Bush with his 90 percent voting record (“I’m not ready to take a ten percent chance on change”), and deftly skewered him for masking strategic cluelessness with tough talk. Rhetorically, Obama’s most effective anti-McCain device came when he highlighted vast areas of agreement among Americans—on abortion reduction, visitation rights for gays, an Iraq timetable—while nudging McCain outside the consensus.

Obama was just as self-aware rebutting the charges the McCain camp has thrown at him—at times even a little meta. He mounted a defense against the celebrity epithet—“I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks celebrities lead, but this is mine”—making him perhaps the first nominee in history to rebut a commercial in a convention speech. Obama defused the idea that he’s vain and narcissistic by proclaiming that we all put our country first, and by noting that this campaign isn’t about him but all of us. And while the middle-third of the speech came a little close to a SOTU-like recitation—not sure we needed to know that uninsured Americans will be permitted to buy into the congressional health plan—it was clearly a response to the meme that Obama only speaks in airy abstractions. And probably a necessary one.

But perhaps most inevitably, Obama showed up tonight aware that he was delivering a speech in the shadow of his 2004 keynote address—the speech that effectively launched his campaign. It’s as though he wanted to remind voters he’s still the same guy they fell in love with four years ago, despite everything they might have heard in between. If the crowd at Invesco was any indication (and I realize it was biased), the effort was wildly successful. Obama’s most explicit allusion to his 2004 speech—the line about soldiers not serving red America or blue America, but the United States of America—was the most fanatically applauded of the night. The crowd then broke into the kind of spontaneous USA! chant I hadn’t heard since Iowa. 

To the extent the speech will be criticized, I’d guess the naysaying will focus on Obama’s new harshness. But, for my money, the remarkable thing about Obama’s performance is that he managed to stay so optimistic while throwing elbows: We’re not a nation of whiners, as Phil Gramm would have it. We work hard even when the odds are against us. We’re not upset about the last eight years because they’ve hurt us. We’re upset because we’re a fundamentally better country than the Bush record would indicate. That’s tough stuff. But still well within bounds for a man selling hope.

--Noam Scheiber