Obama’s Acceptance Speech: In the Shadow of Supporters
In the final installment of his series of analysis on the four key speeches of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, USF Associate Professor Michael Gibbons examines President Obama’s convention-closing speech in Charlotte. As the election moves toward the critical debates, Gibbons offers his insight on what the President said and if it will be enough to lead undecided voters to approve a second term or move in a different direction with challenger Mitt Romney.
Most people who heard Bill Clinton’s speech nominating President Obama for a second term anticipated that the former president would be a hard act to follow. And it was certainly the case that in contrast to Clinton’s speech, the President’s was measured, informed by the realities of the moment. It was the speech of an incumbent having to encourage his party and undecided voters that, despite the inability of the country to achieve the goals he set out for it four years ago, there is still a clear picture of what needs to be done to get the country back to economic normalcy.
By and large, the media was guarded or critical of the tone. Many pundits claimed the speech didn’t encourage the enthusiasm that his first acceptance speech did, although one Republican consultant on CNN called it presidential. Moreover, it wasn’t just Clinton’s speech that overshadowed it. It was a night of speeches that energized and even excited the crowd. John Kerry’s speech on foreign policy was called the best speech of the night by some. Jennifer Granholm, former Governor of Michigan, gave an animated speech that was met with the most enthusiasm of any speech in either convention and had some Democrats bemoaning that she’s Canadian born. Even Joe Biden’s speech drew on a passion and experience that many middle class blue collar voters could identify with. The result was that Obama’s speech, that at times seemed almost more like an academic lecture than a convention speech, was overshadowed by others.
I think for the most part the media ignored how precise and thorough the speech was with respect to the achievements of the administration, achievements in spite of the scorched earth policies of the Republicans in Congress and in those states such as Florida where they control the legislature and governor’s office. He emphasized the creation of new jobs in manufacturing and saving the automobile industry; the increase in energy efficiency, opening of new areas for oil and gas exploration, and cuts in oil imports and dependency; the commitment to the environment; what is required to improve education, a problem that gets a lot of lip service but very little substantive effort; an allusion to the successes in foreign policy; and finally, identifying the successes and strengths of Obamacare. Interestingly, Gov. Romney just recently identified several of elements of Obamacare that he would actually keep.
But the most important thing he stressed, and the thing that went largely ignored by most of the media, with the exception of MSNBC, was the point about citizenship. Citizenship in a democratic republic is not simply a question of birth or naturalization. That wouldn’t make democratic citizenship very much different from citizenship in any other country. The democratic ideal of citizenship was captured in his statement that along with rights comes responsibility, that “a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism,” all the things precluded by Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian vision, “is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” In that respect, it harkened back to the ideals of Jefferson and Lincoln, the idea that the sense of community, of civic virtue, of the middle class is the political, economic, and moral strength of American politics and economics.
The President has received somewhat more of a bounce from the DNC than Gov. Romney did from the RNC. But the real test will be how the voters sort out in the next several weeks. That is qualified by the fact that the number of undecided voters at this point is relatively small in comparison to past elections. Moreover, there is a good deal of research that indicates that voters who are undecided at this point don’t really have great interest in politics, tend to be less informed about the issues, and tend to have lower rates of voting. Some commentators suggest that means that the election will be decided by which party can generate the best turnout of its base. But it might come down to how many voters accept Obama’s view that we are not just consumers, employees, and employers, but citizens with obligations of civic virtue as well.