Heilemann: A Confident Obama Plays It Safe

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CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 06:  Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on stage as he accepts the nomination for president during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC, which concludes today, nominated U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By the time Barack Obama took the stage at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, to close out the Democratic National Convention, the bar for his speech had been set almost impossibly high. Not only was he competing, in a sense, with the pitch-perfect performances of the past two nights — by his radiant wife Michelle and pyrotechnic predecessor Bill Clinton — but with his own history and reputation. At the past two Democratic conventions, after all, Obama uncorked landmark orations: the 2004 keynote in Boston that sparked his rise to fame and the 2008 speech in Denver that drove an audience of more than 80,000 at Invesco Field into a state approaching rapture.

Obama's acceptance of his party's presidential renomination last night never came close to achieving the altitude of either of those addresses or the heights of MRO's or WJC's. There was precious little loftiness or lyricism in Obama's speech, little electrifying or galvanizing. Instead of offering soaring inspiration, it delivered a sober, somber, at times grim determination. It wasn't a great speech by any means, but it wasn't a bad speech, either. What it was mainly was a safe speech — the kind of cautious, competent effort that reflects risk aversion and a vast degree of confidence in the position Obama occupies vis-à-vis Mitt Romney as we head into the final two-month sprint to Election Day.

Obama, of course, has always had supreme assurance in his capacities from the lectern: Rarely is there a political problem or challenge he encounters for which he doesn't see a speech as the solution. As he strode onstage, I e-mailed an old friend and longtime Democratic speechwriter and asked how he saw the task at hand and what he expected from the president. "If the purpose of Romney and Republicans [at their convention in Tampa] was to prompt some of Obama's 2008 supporters to say, 'We tried, the noble experiment didn’t work, we have permission to vote for Mitt,' it's Obama's job to earn the right to close his address by claiming back the emotion of electing — and now reelecting — the first black president (not stated that explicitly but with a call to history)," my friend replied. "He earns it by: (1) Giving a State of the Union-type address to show what he’d do with a second term; (2) Framing the choices as Democrats like to frame them; and (3) Conceding he didn't accomplish everything he set out to by asking for a chance to finish the job. He gets this done, workmanlike, walking the public through the argument, then closes with history."

My friend's prediction proved eerily prescient, though Obama's execution of this rhetorical strategy left various things to be desired. The speech's first two thirds were, indeed, SOTU-like and workmanlike in the extreme. Obama's opportunity here, laid out on a silver platter for him by Romney's vacuity on the policy front in Tampa, was three-fold: to present a second-term agenda notable for its specificity, its boldness, and/or its novelty. But Obama whiffed not once or twice but thrice, putting forward a laundry list of gauzy goals —"a million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years," "100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years," "cut our oil imports in half by 2020 and support more than 600,000 new jobs in natural gas" — that felt achingly familiar, almost all of them having been itemized in Obama SOTUs or other speeches in the past.

Laced through Obama's recitation of objectives was his delineation of the choice entailed in the election. Now, the choice-versus-referendum battle has been raging since the race began, with Romney having more or less capitulated the moment he named Paul Ryan as his running mate.

But that didn't stop Obama from wielding it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, invoking the words "choose" or "choice" fully twenty times — in the context not only of specific areas of policy, not just "between two candidates or two parties, but "between two different paths for America ... between two fundamentally different visions for the future."

It was in mocking the Romney-Ryan path and vision that Obama was most effective — and certainly at his funniest. Building on one of Clinton's riffs, he said:

Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right.  They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: 'Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!'

Then there was the third step: the acknowledgment of the fact that Obama's project is still a work in progress, that his report card still (as he put in an interview the other day) incomplete, and that, most crucially, he has been rendered humble by the job. "The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades," the president said, again echoing Clinton.

And, later in the speech: "While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

Such a tone of humility would have been inconceivable from the candidate Obama of four years ago. But as he himself said in what may be the memorable line of the speech, "The times have changed – and so have I."

Yet not so much that Obama was unable to pivot back to 2008, summoning up the call to history with a series of stanzas that were a reworked version of "We are the change we are waiting for." "The election four years ago wasn’t about me," Obama said. "It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change." With that, he unfurled a series of stories about the heroics of ordinary citizens. But what was really going on was something deeper. As my speechwriter pal put in e-mail, by asserting that "the change is you," Obama was saying, "If you give up on me now, we can’t protect our country from the bad stuff that Republicans will bring and give it the good stuff it still needs. Permission to give up DENIED. Permission to say the noble experiment failed DENIED. Permission to vote for pessimism over optimism DENIED."

The problem with all this, as a conservative strategist pointed out to me, is that in terms of policy, Obama is offering little more than an incremental extension of his preexisting agenda. "He offered no change, just same old, same old," this strategist said. "He defined change as doing more of what he's been doing, when nearly 70 percent of voters are saying the country is on the wrong track. What am I missing? What did O accomplish tonight?"

A reasonable question, for sure. The short-term answers are that Obama roused the hall and turned in a speech that, rendered by most other politicians, would have been considered stellar — and one that surpassed Romney's convention address on every imaginable dimension. It would be hard to argue, however, that the president knocked the ball out of the park.

Maybe, in the long run, that will prove to have been unnecessary.

Maybe Obama was right to play it safe. Maybe the underlying confidence of the president and his team will prove justified. But if Obama winds up losing by a hair, people will no doubt look back on the speech and wonder: Was he really right to lay down a bunt rather than swinging for the far-off fences?