Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination for the second time on Thursday night. But the Obama that spoke in Charlotte was a very different candidate then the one who was hailed as the harbinger of a new era of American politics in 2008. The president was cheered wildly by the Democratic faithful in the arena, but the speech was only a faint echo of his 2008 triumph in Denver or his breakthrough address in Boston in 2004. His text was well delivered and he may yet be re-elected. But there is also no question that the “hope and change” messiah has left the building.
After four years in office the president labors under the burden of having a less than stellar record and that has made it impossible for him to recapture the fervor that catapulted him into the White House. With the country still mired in a downturn that he tried and failed to fix, his list of achievements is slim. Based on the speeches given in Charlotte, they consist mainly of the auto bailout and the killing of Osama bin Laden (the president said virtually nothing about ObamaCare and nothing at all about the stimulus). That left him with a speech that recycled a laundry list of 2008 promises that fell flat. Those who are devoted to his cause applauded what they heard. But while the president is still an impressive political actor, this was a pedestrian speech that fell far short of the mark he needed to hit to have an impact on voters.
Oddly enough, the great orator seemed to be outstripped by Vice President Joe Biden’s rambling, overlong speech that preceded his moment in the spotlight. Biden’s exaggerations and fibs will have the fact checkers working overtime tonight and he flubbed some lines, but his was a passionately partisan rant that probably did more to shore up the Democratic base than Obama’s often lukewarm effort.
It is perhaps unfair to judge Obama’s speech by the high standard he set at the last two Democratic conventions. Yet what he produced in Charlotte was not so much a statement of vision as a rerun of some of his less than exciting State of the Union speeches. Given the opportunity to make the case for his re-election, he did little to explain to voters why things happened as they did during his administration or to give them any real idea of how he could achieve any of the goals he set for himself in 2008 or this year. The result was a standard compendium of Democratic campaign talking points that often fell flat and didn’t answer the big question facing the country. After a week of Democrats speaking of what they now call the “Great Recession” that Obama inherited, the president wasn’t able to make a case that might persuade voters he will do better in his second four years than he did in his first four.
The president did engage in his standard rhetorical tic that consists of setting up straw men to be knocked down. In the world of Obama, his only opponents are always unreasonable extremists rather than people with opposing ideas. He also claimed Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had presented no plans about how to fix the economy. Considering that his party has been running against Paul Ryan’s plan for reforming entitlements, that takes his campaign slightly off message. But none of this moved the debate forward in a way that could help Obama win over undecided voters.
After spending much of his speech attacking those straw men, Obama concluded by returning to some of the familiar “hope” rhetoric of the past. But by that time there was no way to reignite the passion of the country on his behalf. Whereas in 2008 he was a historic figure challenging the nation, in 2012 he has been reduced to a standard issue politician spinning his record and putting down his opponents.
Hanging over Obama’s speech is the monthly jobs report that will be issued tomorrow. No matter how well Obama’s speech was received nothing he said on Thursday night was going to affect the race as much as news about the economy. But there’s no question that his address was a missed opportunity to try to get back the magic. If he loses in November, we may look back on this evening as the moment when that outcome became inevitable.