Friday, August 29, 2008

Politics: Obama's Acceptance Speech

Obama's speech last night (transcript here)was better than I anticipated. I have little patience for political speeches in general, and convention acceptance speeches, like State of the Union addresses, are inevitably the worst of the lot: too long, too meandering, and too dependent on hackneyed language to be of much interest. Obama's speech last night was pretty par for the course. I was glad that he stayed fairly specific; there was little of the drifting off into the fog of abstractions that's his greatest weakness. He made a point of being gracious; Obama still refuses to laud Bill Clinton for the achievements of his administration, but he was thanked for the effectiveness of his convention speech Wednesday night. According to the commentators, Obama apparently modeled the speech after the convention acceptance speeches of Kennedy, Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and that appears to have disciplined him somewhat. As for that godawful backdrop--one of Britney Spears' set designers was hired to provide it--it wasn't too distracting.

So why am I disappointed? It's rooted in Obama's refusal to acknowledge the success of Bill Clinton's presidency. In the convention acceptance speeches of George Bush the Elder, Bob Dole, Dubya, and most likely John McCain, the foundation of the case they make to the American people is always the perceived successes of Ronald Reagan. However, they don't just identify themselves with Reagan; they always speak of how they intend to build on what they see as his accomplishments. Everything is discussed in terms of what people know from experience a President can do. Obama has a pretty rich legacy in terms of modern predecessors, particularly with regard to domestic policy; you can't do much better on that front than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. But he never acknowledges them; he never promotes himself in terms of continuing and extending their legacy. He doesn't even talk about his goals in terms of the smaller successes of contemporary state governors. He demonstrates no understanding of what the power he seeks has accomplished or can accomplish in practical terms.

Instead, he gives us junk like this:

For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.

We've all heard variations of this from Obama over the last year-and-a-half. Obama needs to outline his vision of what government can do, and explain how he plans to implement it. He needs to demonstrate his understanding of what is good about what's come before and illustrate how he plans to build on it and build away from the bad. He refused to do that. Instead, Obama posits that worthwhile change can only come from novices or relative novices. I think we can all look back on the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush to see how well that works out.

An effective President always has one foot in the old and one foot in the new; success is determined by how well a President maintains his or her balance. This is why John McCain is the strongest candidate the Republicans have to offer. He's a government insider, but he's not perceived as being bound by party dogma. In terms of image, he's considered the most likely to be able to go in a new direction without falling over. (In reality, I think he's got both feet firmly rooted in the old, which is why I would never consider voting for him.) Obama, with his implicit rejection of everything that's come before, only guarantees that, if elected, he's going to be doing a lot of falling over, and there's nothing to indicate whether he knows how to get back up or is able to learn how to stay there. The American people want a President who is both responsive to their needs and understanding of how to achieve goals. Obama failed to make the latter part of that case for himself last night.

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Those looking for a somewhat different (and, in my opinion, quite perceptive) take on what went wrong with Obama's speech last night are advised to read Anglachel's excellent post, "Surface and Depth." Just click here.

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I see on the news behind me that McCain's picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. That's certainly a left-field choice. If nothing else, it'll succeed in knocking Obama off the TV, as pundits will be scrambling to make sense of the decision, and uncommitted voters aren't going to be interested in anything else. I see from her Wikipedia page that she's got a history of standing up to the corrupt GOP establishment in Alaska. She has very strong public-integrity credentials. My initial guess is that John McCain is positing himself as moving away from the flagrant corruption of the GOP during the Dubya years. That's his notion of change we can believe in. It's not a bad one.

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