“I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed and so have I.
“I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.”
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama campaigned at the Democratic National Convention on hope and change. In 2012, the change was that he could no longer just campaign on hope.
So the speech that the President gave in re-accepting his nomination was, at least until its end, less soaring and more subdued; less poetic and more prosaic. There was less music, more liner notes. (He also gave the speech indoors, not in a stadium—because of the pouring rain this week in Charlotte, but the shift in venue also seemed to fit the shift in tone, from brass trumpets to brass tacks.) There were just a few jokes; no one said anything to a chair.
It was a speech for a President, in other words, with the constraints of the office: who needed, in still-tough times, to make a specific case why they could have been tougher, what he wants to do going forward and how it beats the alternative. (No accident he used the term “choice” constantly; Obama needs the election to be seen as a choice between his vision and Mitt Romney’s, not an up-and-down vote on his performance.)
So there was a theme built through the night—especially in Joe Biden’s introductory speech—of a President making tough choices, sometimes unpopular at the time, for the right reasons. Two choices in particular: the night, largely, was brought to you by General Motors and the ghost of Osama Bin Laden. There were arguments about tax fairness and the influence of money in politics. (“If you’re sick of hearing me ‘approve this message,’ believe me, so am I.”) And philosophically, there was an overarching idea: the belief in “citizenship,” or “The idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another.”
It was not, for much of the speech’s length, the kind of roof-raiser that closed the last two nights—but a largely well-produced convention set him up beforehand, with his wife Michelle (who was able to focus on his personal characteristics) and Bill Clinton (who could be cheerfully pugnacious). It was fitting that Obama closed his speech by bringing out a line that gave the credit, and responsibility, for change to his audience—”You Did
It That”*—because this time around, this convention was definitely not a solo act.
*Corrected typo—and one has to wonder if this credit-sharing refrain was meant to counter the ongoing “You Didn’t Build That” attacks from Republicans.
It was on that “You Did That” run when the timbre of Obama’s voice changed, back to the mountaintop oratory of ’08. It was like seeing a band on tour later into their career, playing the new songs but knowing they have to give the crowd the hits at the end of the set. “We don’t turn back,” he said. “We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”
And then the confetti flew, to the like-minded strains of Bruce Springsteen’s recent song, “We Take Care of Our Own.” It wasn’t “Badlands” or “Thunder Road.” But might it be enough to get the fans to stick around for the encore?
One last disclaimer for the week: because I believe you should know this, here is where I disclose that I voted for Obama in 2008 and plan to again this year. As I’ve written before, I think that most people who care enough about politics to write about it have political opinions, and you should be able to take them into consideration if it matters to you. As a columnist, it’s my job to be opinionated but also to call things the way I see them without spinning them to help my side win, and it should be your right to decide whether I’ve done so. My political leanings, though, are not why I didn’t write a similar post on Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech — I was on vacation last week.