By John Barron
Barack Obama’s national political career really began with a great speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America
Less than three years later he was running for President.
In March of 2008 his White House campaign faced its greatest challenge: not Hillary Clinton or John McCain, but racially-charged sermons from his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that cut into the heart of Obama’s call for unity.
No, no no! Not God bless America, god damn America!
Under huge pressure, Obama stepped up to make a speech titled A More Perfect Union which saved his candidacy and gave many people a new understanding of race in politics:
We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that, in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
Many other memorable speeches followed: in Berlin in the summer of 2008, in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night in November when he became the President-elect of the United States of America.
Then, as President, in Cairo, Egypt, when he attempted to redefine and restart relations with the Muslim world:
I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance; and the dignity of all human beings.
Many of the words from Obama’s great speeches have already become part of history, in some cases literally etched into stone, and there is such anticipation every time he makes a major address you can imagine the stone mason getting the chisel ready.
So expectations were high in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week as President Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination for a second four year term. The convention had already heard some fine oratory, a standout speech from First Lady Michelle Obama and a barn-burning lesson in politics and policy from former president Bill Clinton.
The stage was set. The crowd was primed. The President appeared to a huge ovation.
And then a funny thing happened…
The words were there, perhaps a little too familiar these days — sounding more like a rock star’s greatest hits than an album of new work.
He began by reflecting on how far he’d come since that first great speech in Boston:
Eight years later that hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history, and by political gridlock that's left us wondering whether it's still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time.
I know campaigns can seem small, even silly sometimes.
Obama not only looks older, and greyer — a process that seems accelerated for all Presidents — but a little too serious, worn-down — sad even. His high-beam smiles were few and far between. Even when he spoke of his love of his family he appeared a little grim.
And he didn’t sugar-coat the road ahead either:
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now.
Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. (Cheers.)
Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. (Cheers.)
We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. (Cheers.)
We pull each other up. (Cheers, applause.)
We draw strength from our victories. (Cheers, applause.)
And we learn from our mistakes.
But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.
The crowd in the convention centre loved it. So did most of the reporters in the room. The TV pundits in soundproof studios were divided — although not necessarily along ideological lines.
For many, myself included, there was something missing.
Was it the lack of boldness? The audacity to think his words could change minds, if not move mountains?
So often in the past five years, Barack Obama and his staff have proven to be chess masters in a world of reporters playing tic-tac-toe, so I wouldn’t discount the possibility that his low-key, pared-back style was calculated, deliberate, and may be even effective.
After all, had Obama made a soaring speech to the DNC, the pundits would have said, “Well sure, he makes a great speech, but what’s he going to do to fix the economy?”
It is likely President Obama knew the unemployment data for August, which was released publicly first thing on Friday, when he started his speech just before 10.30pm Thursday night.
The topline looks okay — good even — with the jobless rate falling from 8.3 per cent in July to 8.1 per cent last month.
That’s equal to its lowest level since February 2009 — just weeks after Barack Obama became President as the US economy was falling off a cliff.
But with less than 100,000 new jobs created and the lowest participation rate since 1981, the President knows that encouraging topline number for August hides a worrying fact: the US economy has plateaued and could slip backward unless the Federal Reserve steps in.
There are just two more monthly jobs reports between now and the November 6th election, and no matter how good his speeches are between now and then, these figures could be the ultimate report cards on Barack Obama’s presidency.
It’s enough to make anyone sound a bit flat.
10 September 2012