7 Sep 2012

Obama: more hope and faith, than hope and change

This was not a time for soaring rhetoric: not for a country in the grip of an economic downturn. President Obama’s speech was carefully modulated – but did it leave voters wishing for more?

Four years ago Barack Obama promised a new kind of politics: a game-changing moment for America. At the convention in Denver, his rhetoric soared above the record 84,000 strong crowd: his words lifted their hearts, brought tears to their eyes, urged them to reach for the extraordinary. The dream was no longer impossible. It was here, it was now, it was Obama.

In 2012, things are all very different. Obama inherited a world that was basically falling apart, undone by financial profligacy, locked into war, gridlocked by partisan strife. The reality of governing at such a time may have changed the parameters – but they changed the president, too.

And so “Times have changed, and so have I,” declared Obama, as he deliberately avoided that lofty, oratorical flourish which was once his trademark. This was not an address designed to move anyone to tears – Bill Clinton achieved something of that a day earlier. Instead, a balanced speech, which some called “workmanlike”, others just plain “flat”.

You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. Barack Obama

Such were expectations that such a speech, even if it was exactly what his strategists had planned, was certain to disappoint. But there was a coherent strand running through the Charlotte convention, with three blockbuster speeches designed to hammer home the same point. This election, the Democrats have been trying to say, is not about the president’s record. Rather, a clear, ideological choice between two very different futures.

Sure, times are hard. I appreciate your struggle. But trust me, went the message, and we will get there in the end. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear, you elected me to tell you the truth.” In other words, it would have been impossible for Obama the incumbent to hit those high notes of soaring optimism that candidate Obama reached for in 2008. Times are tougher, lives are harder.

The path to a better place?

Instead there was that sober note of reality-checking that echoed the president’s speech at his inauguration: “I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.”

So what of the substance, if we can call it that? There were promises, almost Clintonesque in their modesty, about manufacturing jobs, education, national security, energy and the deficit. There were frequent digs at the Republican team, from their ties to big business to their lack of foreign policy experience. “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

Of course Obama had zero foreign policy experience when he was elected: but he has taken those 3am calls, and, he was keen to remind the audience in the hall and beyond – Osama bin Laden is dead. We did that.

But back to that ideological gulf which the Democrats are keen to create, and an effort to get beyond the distraction surrounding “You didn’t build that”, an offhand Obama comment which the Republicans turned into the theme of their convention, hoping to paint the president as unpatriotic, out of step with true American values like hard work and self reliance.

Here, there was room for some unashamed liberalism. Government may not be the source of all the answers, but neither is it the souce of all our problems, went the refrain. “We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it,” the president insisted, with a nod to the “risk takers” behind the success of America’s free enterprise system.

Ode to citizenship

“But we also believe in something called citizenship… the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” It was a theme he returned to again, as he hit out at his opponents’ plans to give more tax cuts to the wealthy, and on healthcare: “I will never, never turn Medicare into a voucher. No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”

But that was about as much as Obama was willing to give on the twin peaks of his time in office, healthcare reform and the stimulus, in keeping with the Democrats’ efforts not to make the election a vote on his record. For that, the best line was down to Joe Biden: “Osama Bin Laden is dead, but General Motors is alive.”

By the end, there was a a moment to soar, a few rousing lines that finally brought the crowds to their feet. Again, the theme was togetherness: “We leave no-one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing Providence is with us.”

Reality check

Hours later, more reality set in: the monthly jobs figures showed a slight drop in unemployment to a shade over 8 per cent, with just 96,000 jobs created in the last month. For Mitt Romney, who claimed he hadn’t even watched the speech, a chance to pour scorn: “If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover.”

Despite the decidedly mixed reaction from the Washington pundits, it appears the president’s speech did manage to hit some of the right notes. Twitter reported that the address set a record for the most tweets in a single minute of any political event. The most tweeted line? “I’m no longer the candidate, I’m the president.”

The latest Gallup tracking poll, based on all three nights of the Democratic convention, show Obama’s job approval rating has soared to 52%, with just 43% disapproval.

So if there wasn’t much room for the old hope and change in Charlotte this week, at least there was faith. And the hope that a first-term president has done enough to secure himself a second, four-year term.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News