In his 2008 convention speech, Barack Obama’s main challenge was rhetorical — to frame and summarize a historical moment in which the choosing of a president could at least partially overcome the most enduring divisions of a nation.
He failed, and failed in a revealing way. Obama’s Denver speech could have been delivered by any generic, partisan Democrat on any day of the past few decades. It was remarkable for its conventionality. In retrospect, it should have raised a question: Was Obamaism a great ideological movement or a great campaign poster?
Obama’s 2012 convention speech also failed, revealingly. As literature, it managed to be simultaneously lofty and pedestrian. America faces a “choice between two different paths” and the rules must be the same “from Main Street to Wall Street” and we’re “moving forward, America.” There were some nice sentiments on citizenship and community. But by the end of the speech, no boiler lacked a plate.
It was said of Bernard Baruch’s rhetorical style, “Even a platitude dropped from a sufficiently great height can sound like a brick.” In Charlotte, Obama dropped such bricks instead of balloons.
This year, however, Obama’s test was not primarily rhetorical. There were no historical spirits in need of summoning, no national sins requiring absolution. A mediocre speech would have sufficed, if it had explained to Americans why they should remain hopeful during an anemic recovery and then provided a compelling rationale for a second Obama term.
Obama set for himself one prerequisite to win reelection — what might be called the “one-term proposition” test. Soon after his inauguration, he said of economic recovery: “If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” This was a perfectly reasonable expectation, which Obama must now erase.
Our current economic recovery, by any measure, is pathetic. Under Obama, America pursued the most aggressive fiscal and monetary policy easing ever. Yet we have seen the worst performance of GDP and employment following any postwar recession. Real household incomes have fallen faster in the recovery than during the recession itself. The most recent jobs report reveals an economy that reduces the unemployment rate only through despair, as Americans drop out of the labor force entirely. The share of civilians participating in the labor force (which includes those looking for work) stands at a 30-year low — 63.5 percent.
There might be explanations for this state of affairs. Maybe the nature of the 2008 financial crisis was unique. Maybe Obama’s policies are right on the verge of working — an antibiotic we’ve been taking for four years that is just about to kick in. Maybe the president has learned some economic lessons over the years that he now intends to apply in new and dramatic ways.
But in his convention speech, Obama barely touched on these arguments. He mainly claimed credit for saving the auto industry and killing Osama bin Laden — both, in my view, admirable things. But these accomplishments provide no rational basis for a voter to assume that economic policy is currently on the proper path or that results will improve by doing more of the same.
Obama made almost no mention of the continuing jobs crisis. He offered nothing new or creative on a fiscal and debt crisis that undermines economic confidence. Much of Obama’s agenda — lowering tuition costs, recruiting math and science teachers, “long-lasting batteries” — sounded like a seventh-year State of the Union address, a collection of policy leavings and leftovers. One of Obama’s more ardent defenders called this a “return to normalcy after a long period of emergency.” And so Obama has gone in four years from being compared to Abraham Lincoln to carrying forward the legacy of Warren Harding.
The president’s convention speech was defiantly complacent. He assumes that Americans already recognize and trust his good judgment — why argue for the obvious? And aren’t his opponents just unreasonable extremists anyway? All Americans need now is a little hope, a little faith. But hope and faith in what?
Perhaps the most revealing moment of Obama’s speech came toward the end. “The times have changed, and so have I,” he said. “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” His policies may be humble, but his ultimate appeal is not. Obamaism has never primarily been a plan; it is a man.
In 2012, however, the times have changed. The man has a record he must somehow explain.