Pundits in the corporate press do not seem to like Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Radicalized Republicans like Charles Krauthammer hated it, but of course they have merely imagineered a hybridized Gandhi/Trotsky/Farrakhan Manchurian candidate for the express purposes of unloading their hatred. (Another word for this is “scapegoating”… but don’t call them racist.) Liberal pundits like Dana Milbank and Michael Tomasky were clearly disappointed for different reasons, but mainly because they found him overly subdued and cold and lacking in new political initiatives. They wanted a sermon and a State of the Union address all rolled into one, and they felt bad that they didn’t get one.
Fortunately the speech was not written for the punditry class. Nor was the speech really delivered for anyone in New York or California, or Alabama or Arizona for that matter. Obama’s apparent lack of fire was not accidental. Nothing in Obama’s well oiled campaign machine is accidental, and it may turn out that by electing a President in this sustained economic crisis they will have run the best campaign in history.
So who was the audience for last night’s speech? Howard Kurtz has correctly assessed the situation. This was a speech deliberately constructed and vetted for three key swing states: Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado (in that order). Without winning at least one of these states, there are few options for Romney in the Electoral College, and the options that remain are highly improbable. Indeed, I would hazard to guess that he has to win all three to have any shot.
Residents of these three great states are not interested in fiery rhetoric, at least not this year. They want someone who is level-headed and rational, and who has enough backbone to handle the increasingly irrational (and warm) world we live in. They are Midwesterners in other words, and if you haven’t lived among them it can be difficult to comprehend why they identify so strongly with low-key people. Being from Chicago, Barack and Michelle clearly understand the Midwest ethos, and they have presented themselves over the past week as highly ethical citizens. You can see it in the very way they interact with their children; they look like people who have dinner every night together before dad goes back to work. Presenting yourself for what you are – as a highly ethical citizen – is not very exciting. An image unexciting enough to produce empathy in the intended audience.
The key word of the night for Obama was “citizen.” Within the speech, the President made an eloquent appeal for a renewed sense of citizenship. To paraphrase, Obama argued that as an American you have inalienable rights as an individual, but you also have collective responsibilities as a citizen. We teach civics even less than we do driver’s education in this country – and Americans are among the worst drivers in the world. But the lesson here was basic Civics 101: we have a responsibility to move society, its cultures, its economies, its politics, in order to handle the problems of the day. Obama therefore stated that he alone was not the agent of hope and change, but rather “you” in the audience watching the speech. He merely sought to portray himself as an exemplary citizen with whom the audience might identify as citizens.
This sense of collectivity was echoed in the execution of the convention. Obama’s final speech played remarkably well in conjunction with all the other speeches over the past three days, even if it was not his best individual performance. Obama didn’t need to make any pronouncements of new policies. The intended viewers for the speech had already received those pronouncements beforehand, and Bill Clinton effectively concretized the distinction between the Democratic and Republican candidates on Wednesday. In this situation the President merely needed to come across as earnest and hard-working. Again, earnest and hard-working people tend to be boring, but they’re usually the ones you trust to be your friends. And that is pretty much all people in Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Columbus, and Colorado Springs (and Buffalo) want in their candidate. Perhaps not “all people,” but most of them.
The convention was broadcast by all the major news networks. But the final speech of the convention was, in fact, tightly narrowcast. If you live in a landscape that is industrial to post-industrial where it snows heavily in winter, you got the message.