The Distant Horizon: Critiquing Obama’s DNC speech.
Precis: Obama’s a different man now. Gone are the stratospheric rhetorical flourishes, the transcendent promises of post-partisanship. Four years in office has changed the man. My father would have called this a Shechem Sermon, from Joshua 24.
“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Obama hasn’t given a speech here so much as a sermon. The pundits were expecting something quite different. His enemies think it’s a terrible speech. Forget them. They don’t know a sermon when they hear one. As a sermon, it’s an interesting bill of goods.
A Shechem Sermon was needed because getting to the Promised Land isn’t enough. The people of Israel were lapsing back into their idolatrous ways, losing sight of why they’d come. Joshua lays out a much longer time frame, going back the era before Abraham, plainly making a choice and telling the people to make a choice of whose cause they would serve.
After a few personal asides, Obama gets down to business. Eight years prior, he preached a very different sermon, one of hope in the face of adversity. Wars, economic crises, political gridlock. Is it still possible to tackle the challenges of these times?
High marks for getting the sermon off to the right start. Phrase the question in terms of a realistic assessment. The people are in doubt. What is possible? His gibe about “if you are sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I” acknowledged the ferociousness of his own campaign and the grubby business of raising campaign donations. That was entirely necessary: it took the edge off his own charge of the truth buried under an avalanche of money and advertising.
Then comes the fork in the road, the Choose Ye bit. On his side, the Middle Class. On the GOP’s side, the status quo: tax cuts shall cure all our ills. His own side is fleshed out nicely, but the GOP’s side is a murderously accurate description of the Tea Party and the Norquisters. A solid uppercut.
Obama has lowered taxes on the middle class. He didn’t mention he’d traded the Bush Tax Cuts for his arms reduction treaty with Russia and the repeal of DADT. That might have been TMI but I think it should have been said, just so folks understand just how ugly it got negotiating with the GOP.
Obama then set forth his goals, reducing outsourcing, increasing manufacturing, energy and suchlike, improving schools, recruiting teachers, all reasonable enough goals. Nothing particularly breathtaking.
He does a Joshua – if you have read the Joshua 24 link, you’ll understand why I see this as a Shechem Sermon. Obama’s done quite a bit in the last four years, kept many of his promises. But it’s all said in the context of unfinished business, which it is. Nothing is constant, no victory permanent or complete.
Obama then winds up and gives Romney/Ryan a few truly vicious slaps. A good point in the sermon for such an attack. Here he fleshes out the other side of the fork, with a sledgehammer. Deficits, military hawk-ism, hitching a ride on Bill Clinton’s powerhouse speech the night before. Medicare, health insurance, the works, leading into a statement of beliefs.
If you’re following along in the speech, Obama’s carefully avoiding saying he can do anything about some of the evils he’s enumerated. He’s making a statement of belief, returning to the phrase “You’re the reason”, culminating with “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President”. Good chromatic resolution, rhetorically.
Though he, Obama, understands the pain, his own failings – the invocation of Lincoln driven to his knees was a masterful stroke – it’s “what we’ve achieved together”. That was a problem for Obama: lots of people lost faith with him and his cause. Not everyone who voted for him supported him. He does read the polls, does Obama, and it hurt him to see his critics damn him, people who’d once been on his side.
The Litany of Hope begins, specific examples, a trademark of Obama speech craft. Then comes what we must reject, followed by a big rallando passage, what we might believe and the reality of the journey, not to the Promised Land, but the journey of the heart which keeps its eye upon the Distant Horizon.
Summary: Obama tried to sound Presidential but the Gravitas Thing doesn’t suit Obama well. I’m not sure it’s the speech he should have given. He’s always so introspective and recondite: Obama’s giving us a snapshot of himself at present. Hard to say how much of this he wrote himself, I don’t sense it was all his. He could have written a more fiery speech, exhorted the faithful in Charlotte. That’s what they wanted. But this was more of what Obama thought they needed and it’s what the Democratic Party needs: a clear choice, a statement of principles, a Stone at Shechem.