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Evans

Obama's Speech

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 29, 2008

Last night, Obama did everything that he needed to do. He reinforced his credentials, took on McCain and the attacks against him, and tried to make himself the "change agent." And he did this making a strong, clear speech that should motivate his partisans.

First, Obama built on the persona created by the convention as the embodiment of the middle class trying to restore the American Dream/Promise. As I have talked about the past few days, he hit on qualification, identification, and empathy so I will not discuss that much. He mentioned his legislative record for qualification but that was meager so he attacked McCain's judgment. Agreeing with Bush 90% of the time and showing where McCain's judgment was wrong was effective. However, as Karl Rove pointed out last night one of his lines can be turned around on him. He said that those with no record attack their opponents -- sound likes Obama.

Second, Obama directly took on McCain and the attacks against him. That should give his supporters a sense of relief since they feared that he could not. His line about we don't need 10% change, McCain doesn't know, I get it, I put our country first, and it's wrong to challenge his patriotism were well spoken and hard hitting. The problem is that many of these attacks are straw men. Politicians are prone to exaggeration and this is no different. McCain lived on military bases for much of his life (not high end by any measure) and only married wealth in the 80s. I think he understand the middle class. The patriotism attacks were also not mostly patriotism attacks but attacks on his judgment (e.g., opposing surge would have lost Iraq and is a strategy for defeat). Obama is calling them unpatriotic to insulate him from charges that would hurt him.

Third, Obama was successful in claiming the "change" mantel. His lines connecting Bush to McCain, eight years is enough, and our country isbetter than the last 8 years were effective and resonates with a lot of people. Empahsizing energy independence, his coments about reducing abortions, and gun control are meant to reinforce that he is a different kind of politician.

Having said that, I have a few concerns. First, where is the post partisan Obama? This is as partisan a speech as he has given. He began by saying the problem is the system and the policies but most of his speech focused on policy and not the system. Obama connected Bush's policies to all Republican policies, including the Reagan policies. With one breath, he discredits everything Republicans have done since Reagan. His speech, in this respect, is identical to what liberals have been saying since Reagan and before. Obama has shown throughout the campaign that he sees himself as a transformational leader. This speech clearly indicates that he considers this that once in a generation chance to realign American politics and make the Democrats the governing party for the future.

Second, the speech was long on promises, short on specifics. He listed a long list of policies that he wanted to enact but never said how and how he would pay for them. He said that government cannot solve every problem (unusual for a Democrat to say that and thus somewhat post-partisan) and called for personal responsibility but never said how he would encourage it. Goals are great but how do we achieve it and are those proposals reasonable? I know this is an acceptance speech and cannot include the details but the devil is in the details. Depending on those details, we can get a better idea whether he is post-partisan or not.

Third, there was not really an underlying theme. JFK had the New Frontier, LBJ the Great Society, Clinton the New Covenant, but there is not overarching theme or description of his policies. Obama needs to work more on connecting them in some larger way as other transformative presidents have done or tried to do. Otherwise, he can be attacked for just compiling the liberal wish list. That is not a label he wants to be tagged with.

Finally, if I am a Republican, I would be very scared. He gave a great speech, had good attacks on Republicans, and claimed the change mantle. To make it more spectacular, he filled a stadium with 75,000 people for a political speech. WOW! The energy that he has generated and the appeal that he has should scare Republicans. If he is able to harness all this, he may be the transformational leader who changes American politics at the start of the 21st Century.