A couple of months ago, I finally read Game Change; as much as I enjoyed the book, very little felt new to me–it surprised me, actually, how much I remembered every twist and turn of the 2008 election.
I don’t know why I was so surprised–for the full year before the election, I spent a good portion of my days reloading Nate Silver and reading every Talking Points Memo update and watching dozens of campaign speeches.
Many critics of last Thursday’s speech write that Obama disappointed them, he didn’t soar, he played it safe, he was dull and plodding and didn’t reach the rhetorical heights of which he is capable, and that people desperate want to hear.
But what I have long noticed about Obama as a speaker is that his rhetoric soars most highly when he attempts to engage new listeners, people who might be giving him a chance for the first time. It’s an organizer trick–be stunning and stellar when you’re trying to get folks to “buy-in”.
Once you have bought in, once he knows that the expectation is coming from loyal fans yearning to be “taken” somewhere–that’s when he clamps down on the theatrics. That’s when he gets quiet, and serious, and substantive.
It happened election night. It happened during his Inauguration. Those speeches were serious, somber even, as he tried to make clear the tremendous challenges we were facing, and to temper any expectations that these problems would be solved quickly or easily.
That’s what happened at the DNC.
As it was, I thought the speech did have a larger, loftier ambitions; scaffolded on the incredibly well orchestrated 3-days of speeches preceding him that repeated a refreshingly well-organized Democratic party line: Osama is dead and GM is alive, we support gay marriage, women’s choice, health care, the Republicans have nothing to say, etc.; this left Obama free to not have to waste time trumpeting a check list of accomplishments.
Instead, I felt that Obama, as he has often before, outlined a philosophical defense of the idea that citizenship matters. That, as Publius wrote in the Federalist papers, citizenship in the United States requires the tacit acceptance of various obligations and commitments to each other and our community and our future survival.
It was a big ideas speech, reiterating, in an understated way, the same claims that shot Barack Obama to the top of our national consciousness at the same convention eight years earlier:
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.