Well, it’s the usual thing. Everyone who was there, or near to it, will say it was the greatest speech they’ve ever heard. Everyone who doesn’t believe that the Fabian-Illuminati are using Obamacare to sell Cubbie Station to the Chinese will be moved, lifted up, feel a rise in their chest, a lightness, a wind behind them. The last five minutes were electric, as everyone knew they would be. And then, a few days later, we will all come to our senses and feel that it was a good speech, maybe even a very good one — but not a great one, not something transcendental or transformative.
But then again how could it be? We already had Michelle, and then Bill, and then Joe Biden, and each of them, and half a dozen others, had done something extraordinary, each of them had done something more than the whole of the Republican convention put together. In his 2008 speeches Obama had gone wide during the primaries, with the full oracular, down to the river stuff, which we know now, from countless memoirs, he hates. Then he cut it off, for the rest of the campaign, worked in prose, as they say, only bringing it out for the very end.
So now after watching the speech at the Politico party — yeah I made the party and it was great, there were free cocktails sponsored by vodka companies and hot women in summer dresses who knew Rutherford B Hayes’ electoral college score, and were impressed that I knew that Chester A Arthur piloted the Pendelton Act through Congress and does not deserve his obscurity and everyone else from the Alternative Media Centre snuck up to drink mojitos, and it was good and so shut up OK, we’ve earned our fun, were you in Tampa due huh, were you OK, so nuff zed …
Jesus, where was I? Ah yes, down in Picassos (?) sports bar now, with the hardcore backwash. Where were we? Ah yeah, Obama, his speech, the challenges thereof. Now, well, what could he do? The compromised nature of reality, the partial achievements cannot but be acknowledged, the dream cannot be rolled out again unmitigated — but nor can it be mere policy, a series of bids and promises, such as become the substance of Australian political speeches. “Because we are ordained by God as the last best hope of man I will double track the rail to Liverpool, that will happen by 2020 …”
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“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now.”
Before he began, with the various introductions from Joe Biden, etc, there was the usual chatter buzz at the Politico gig, and then Michelle introduced him, and he hugged her deep, and the room got quiet, and people started to listen — hundreds of us, watching 30 or 40 different screens positioned around this empty fifth floor office building which had become a party zone.
He began in a quotidian enough way — “our faith has been tested, gridlock has made us wonder whether anything is possible, if you’re sick of hearing me say I approved this message, well so am I” — and he kept the tone steady for the most part. Any fool could see that he was running on second gear, in order to have somewhere to kick up to for the last five or 10 minutes of the thing. It was beyond the geniuses of the National Review; its Twitter feed kept up a continual diatribe of scorn and calumny, and seemed to think that the speech wasn’t going anywhere else.
About eight minutes in there was the first turn:
“Our problems can be solved, our challenges can be met … that is what we can do in the next four years and that is why I am running for a second term as president of the United States …”
And he started to get into some serious promises as regards the next four years, meaty and industrial and, in some part, dedicated to American exceptionalism:
“We work harder and smarter than anyone else … we will sustain the strongest military this country has ever known …”
Jaysus. It’s a long way from Occidental College (fortuitous name). Black Reagan rising.
Then he turns it on the Republicans. He ridicules Romney and Ryan for their lack of foreign policy experience, which is right, but also audacious and hilarious. He cites Romney’s chaotic visit to the UK (“you might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally”), and then his Cold War nostalgic view of Russia, and segues from that nicely to their blame culture:
“It’s always the fault of the government, the women, the gays …”
Then the speech turns, on a dime, and goes into the main act:
“Because — because America, we understand that this democracy is ours. We, the people, recognise that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense … [applause] … As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe. So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens, you were the change.”
That segues into a rhythm of sorts:
“You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs … You’re the reason … you’re the reason … I have never been more hopeful about America …
“I’m hopeful because of you. The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter, she gives me hope … [applause] … The auto worker who won the lottery after his plant almost closed, but kept coming to work every day, and bought flags for his whole town and one of the cars that he built to surprise his wife, he gives me hope … [applause] … The family business in Warroad, Minnesota that didn’t lay off a single one of their 4000 employees during this recession, even when their competitors shut down dozens of plants …”
OK gaaask, gaaak, I know, a lot of it echt nationalism shading into something else, but one has to praise Obama for going wherever he needs to go to win whatever has to be won. Thus he concluded:
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth … [applause] … Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless these United States.”
Well, even then one had to conclude that if you were going to go the whole hog, why not refer back to helicopter pilots, and burnt limbs, and nail it down? As dutiful Crikey readers will have noted, I identified months if not years ago that the Obama camp was going to perfuse their notion of co-operation through a metaphor of military teamwork. It’s a nasty metaphor for all sorts of reasons, but if done ’twere better done to the max, and to picture working America as a burning ‘copter shot down by Bain Capital.
There’s no doubt though the Democrats are going to try their most audacious move yet, and that is to leapfrog over the Republicans in terms of national security, and use the GOP’s empty bloviating about America’s image overseas — combined with a lack of enthusiasm for actually spelling out its policy on wars — to paint the GOP as the party of unpatriotic business types, ultra-individualist, and the Democrats as the party of stern resolve.
There’s a corollary to that, and it’s only a chance, but I suspect it might be done — from outside the party, not the centre — and that is to shine a light on Mitt Romney’s exemptions from military duties in the 1960s. After all, what’s a 21-year-old doing running around France in funny underwear while working class American boys are dying in Vietnam? He will have an explanation — religious exemption — but it’s going to sound pretty shitty. If the Dems roll this out, I will know they have abandoned the last vestiges of their “decentist” liberalism, and are really out to win it. And a good farkin’ thing too.
So yeah, not the greatest speech, no matter what people will say. And I tried to remember the last few lines, but I really couldn’t. I do think that Obama is let down at times by his youngish scriptwriting teams, cleaves too much to the braindead USA Today level of discourse. Having someone in that brains trust with a deeper knowledge of history could have given something more.
Ted Kennedy’s great statement — “the work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on”; something you have to hear him say to get a run down your spine — only works because it is an elaborated version of Rosa Luxemburg’s “the revolution says I was, I am, I will be again” and covers all three time states in one sentence.
It’s pretty shaming that the only deep reference in the whole convention is actress Kerry Washington, paraphrasing Trotsky — “you may not be interested in the economy, but the economy is interested in you” — something that the dimwits at Fox still have not recognised, but may now do so.
Two or three lines in the last paras would have had it. Bill Clinton had them. Did he squirrel them away, save them for himself? Or did they know that Obama couldn’t sell them? Whatever the case, it was a roaring speech, it will have fired the base, and hopefully lazy waverers, the convention was a fucking triumph overall — and there will be a jobs report tomorrow, and we move on.
It was great to be there, and now the party has moved to the Picasso sports bar and there are women talking about Rutherford B Hayes. Forty more years! Forty more years!