Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech: Did It Work?

A lot will be written about the speech but let me just note some thoughts on its structure, which struck me as the most unique thing about Democratic Convention, Day Four.

A) The start of his speech was a real surprise. After all the talk of Obama staying "above the fray" of direct attacks - and after, I must say, two past Democratic nominee speeches that attempted higher rhetoric - he seemed as down and dirty as Biden. It came off as pure politics rather than the "uplift" I expected. My first thougth: won't this destroy his brand? Or was Obama calculating differently here? It was ballsy.

B) The second lap of the speech he modulated into a liteny of policy proposals. A kind of "chicken in every pot" speech that made me want to tune out. Again, people have asked for specifics, and these were specifics. But did we need Obama to recite the prescriptions? (Maybe we did....) But I had wanted soaring rhetoric from Obama, and this was far from it. This was the important, prosaic work of the speech.

C) Third lap of the speech: Obama stretches for bipartisan appeal, explains his "middle way." Doesn't shy away from including gays and lesbians or talking about tough issues like abortion. This is the Obama I fell in love with. He pulled me back in: yes, I thought. This is the real Obama.

D) Forth lap: invokes the spirit of MLK and JFK. This is the Obama that Republicans criticize as being "messianic." But I suppose why pick the anniversary of MLK's speech if you aren't going to make it explicit? A direct appeal to the historic candicacy here...actually, in a way, telling voters to vote for him BECAUSE he's black. I've not seen him do that before. Seemed audacious. But he kept saying, let's dare to be a little audacious. He was leading by example, here.

E) Fifth lap: here comes the soaring rhetoric. But now I'm impressed because I see how the themes of the speech (we all love America, America is about opportunity, we need to put government back into the hands of the people to solve problems) how these all weave through parts A, B, C, and D in different ways. So it's now clear what Obama has done: he's delivered a speech to the five audiences he needs to bring over. It's been carefully tailored and modulated to speak to each one.

A) speaks to the partisans and party regulars who feel Obama "needs to get mad to win." He must have seen that they were right: that unless he fought back, he would not seem tough enough. Here, all the pundits seemed to agree. So startling as it was, there's some truth to it. As friends have said, negative persuasion, studies show, works 30% better than positive persuasion. All Obama was doing here was acknowledging the truth of this science, which Democrats have ignored in the past at their peril.

B) speaks to the middle-class white Hillary supporters who rank the economy as the #1 issue and feel Obama needs to give them very specific chickens to put in their pots. (The parade of "ordinary voters" giving testimony also worked very well to elevate this theme to blue collar voters.) Definitely not my cup of tea, but hey, part B wasn't for me. It was for all those Hillary supporters yet to be convinced that Obama had something specific for them up his sleeve.

C) was for me: idealists, young people, independants and DNC Democrats motivated by Obama's call for a politics of the center that moves past cultural divides. We'd wondered recently if this Obama had disappeared, but he was there at part C to remind us that he hadn't.

D) was for the African Americans who are the base of his support to acknowledge the remarkable accomplishment of this nomination. If there was ever a time to make that acknowledgement, this was it - and since they are voting 95% for Obama, they deserved the nod.

And E? E was to reach back to all these constituencies and give them a theme that would unite them as one. And remarkably...I think it worked. E explained the way the apparent contradiction of an Obama of traditional Democratic policy proposals and post-culture-war comprimises, an Obama who acknowledges the historic nature of an African American candidate but also says the election "isn't about him," an Obama that demonstrated he could transform a culture of celebrity into a culture of public service, with himself as the respected spokesperson for a nation, how all those Obama's can be unified and resolved. He made it obvious that the Presidency is a tangle of contradictions that no man can explain away, but only a man with the immense oratoracle skills, and political sense, as he has, can inspire such diverse audiences to feel and act as one, for a common purpose.

It was a speech structured, in retrospect, much like the convention itself: prosaic at first, telling important constitutencies (such as Hillary supporters or blue-collar partisans) that he was behind them, then reaching across the isle and idealogical divide to expand the tent (while never failing to critize the other side's leaders), all while building to something majestic that finally soared with the themes of his candidacy.

So yes, I agree with the pundits who will say it was a great speech, and an audatious and successful night to a convention that will, no doubt about it, give Obama his much needed bounce in the polls. It wasn't a speech filled with memorable lines or new ideas. But it was smart politics - smarter and braver, probably, than I would have dared, were it me. And he pulled it off. He should be richly rewarded for it.

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