Tuned In

From Midfield, Obama Throws Long

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In a way, the big challenge in Denver tonight was not Barack Obama’s but Invesco Field’s. For days, we’ve heard reports of hand-wringing among Democrats and pundits over Obama’s decision to hold the speech in a stadium. What if it made him seem too presumptuous? What if it looked too showboaty?

As opposed to what—a standard convention? A produced TV event, where you stand on a stage in front of a crowd packed with partisans waving thousands of placards with your name on them and then they drop balloons on you? It was a ridiculous worry, but testament to how the McCain campaign had gotten into the heads of some Democrats—if not the Obama campaign itself—with the “Celebrity” attacks, aimed at (among other things) making their opponents afraid of their own strengths. (Wait! What if he’s too exciting?)

As it turned out, though, for all the fretting over the weather and the so-called “Greek Temple” columns (um, yeah—just like the Zeus-loving polytheists who founded America put all over Washington, D.C.), the stadium turned out to be a dramatic stage for the final night of the convention—and one that led Obama to dial his intensity and volume up to fill it.

Along with the words of the speech—in some way, to TV viewers, even more important than them—the semiotics of the stadium itself sent messages, loaded with our associations from all the other events we see in stadiums: excitement, vitality, adrenaline. It says, visually, that you are daring to be big. Also (and this may be one thing that rankled party members), it sent the visual message that the campaign was about more than the party and the delegates. It conveyed a campaign literally, physically expanding—beyond the first three days of the convention, which were focused on healing the intraparty wounds of the primary (which Brian Williams referred to, delightfully, as “meshugas”), to the broader general electorate.

The speech may or may not have moved votes (disclosure: I voted for Obama in the primary), but as a stage set, Invesco easily passed its screen test. The skycam shots showed a sea of light, with floodlights and flashbulbs. The reaction shots in the crowd looked better than in an indoor arena: the listeners were framed against rafters of people, not party chairs with hats and state banners. The balloons were upgraded to fireworks, even if they paled next to the Olympic display at the Bird’s Nest. Even the backdrop behind Obama—whose faux paned-glass windows looked fake earlier, in daylight—made sense by primetime, when they were lit up in with a warm amber glow straight out of The West Wing.

Yeah, it might all read as arrogance, and yeah, it’s all stagecraft. But it was effective stagecraft.

As for the speech, much of it played as a stump speech in a stadium setting. Maybe listening to the critics who had long criticized him for making speeches short of specifics, Obama delivered a long middle section that ticked off point after point: tax cuts, health care, Iraq, bankruptcy laws, clean coal. And—after more handwringing as to whether he would counterpunch the Republicans—he used not just some of his strongest language against John McCain but, stylistically, a louder voice than he usually reaches. (Again, probably an effect of the stadium: you need to turn the amps up.)

But like Springsteen knowing the fans wouldn’t let him close a show without playing Born to Run, Obama shifted gears ten or fifteen minutes from the end, striking a tone and a theme of the Obama of the early primaries and the 2004 convention keynote, arguing that he was running to change not just policies but the process and—echoing his 2004 star turn—saying that soldiers “have not served a Red America or a Blue America–they have served the United States of America.”

This time, though, he put that language in the service of engaging an opponent, trying to identify John McCain—whose campaign this summer has likened him to Paris Hilton and David Hasselhoff—as part of a politics that “make[s] a big election about small things.” It was an argument tailored to independents, but turned to work for a party’s nominee. (The effort to add sections to the speech for different groups—Democratic red meat here, Hillaryesque wonkiness there, independent concerns there—led the speech to run a strapping 45 minutes.)

Can he reach across the aisle while throwing punches? Maybe Obama’s most striking gesture of metaphorical Purple-America inclusiveness came after his speech, when the speakers played not will.i.am, not Springsteen, not U2, but… Only in America by Brooks & Dunn, the country megastars who played the 2004 Republican convention. It was as if Obama were telling Republicans: you don’t own patriotism, you don’t own the cutting-taxes argument, you don’t own national security—and you don’t own country music.

John McCain, the gauntlet has been thrown. I expect you to bring the Jay-Z in the Twin Cities next week.