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A good speech. Not a great speech. Obama tackles candidacy issues head on and sort of prevails. August 29, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in US Politics.

It’s necessary when critiquing an Obama speech to consider two connected but distinct aspects. Firstly there is the power of his rhetoric. His delivery is forceful, assured, almost elemental in its ability to reach out across a stadium or through television to others. It’s quite an ability and not to be dismissed. But, it’s not entirely unproblematic. While it enthuses more than it irritates it can lead to charges of phoniness. Indeed one of the criticisms one will find on the PUMA websites that is most striking is that of the ’empty suit’. It’s a clever little configuration because it suggests windiness and an absence and in a way links into that great strength of his. And let’s be honest it is a gift Obama has. Whereas his more one on one appearances appear – let’s be generous – a tad wooden (think of the video link up after Michelle Obama’s speech where his youngest child stole the show), he does shine in the specific environment of the public address. This is interesting in itself, and telling in many ways. Obama is arguably the most cerebral candidate we’ve seen in a while and sometimes that comes through a bit too loud and clear in small scale encounters (and allied with that is another trait of the cerebral, an impatient and unnecessary waspishness… ‘…nice enough’ – if ever I heard an academics put down).

The second part is the substance. Here he runs into a little trouble, because he’s not great on the delivery of the detailed as against the visionary. And in fairness, and those of us on the left suffer from this in no small way either, who is? So as we descend into the minutiae of policy his expertise can begin to seem like too short a focus and rather than enthusing it becomes wonkishness. Worse again – and this was very much an aspect of his co-appearance with John McCain last week for a debate about religion – the ability to see both sides of an equation doesn’t necessarily translate into a clarity of viewpoint. Far from it. His quip about determining when life started being ‘a pay grade above his’ was clever but not quite appropriate because it required explanatory sentences around it to appear something other than a glib statement. Of course he couldn’t take the McCain route of simply saying ‘at conception’ because he doesn’t believe that, but because he doesn’t believe it and thinks the matter more complex (and in truth who knows what McCains views are on this matter) it requires further details and explanations. Which is where he begins to lose people.

Anyhow, last nights speech contained elements of both.

A small thought first. Whatever else the Democrats are energised in a way quite different to 2004. John Kerry he ain’t. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. Joe Klein popped up on Channel 4 News arguing the Democrats were as united as he’d seen them since 1968… which may be of small comfort considering that as he noted in ’68 there were fist fights between delegates on the convention floor. But energy is there and a certain determination. Let’s also consider how all this would have played out had Clinton got the nomination. Then we would have seen the arrival of “Obama supporters for McCain” no doubt and the Republicans would have attempted to put a wedge in the Democratic base by appeals to the ‘disenfranchised’ African-American and Hispanic voters. And think back to how in 2000 and less successfully in 2004 Bush attempted to play that card.

And last night was quite successful on both counts. It’s worth reading the full text, or at least scanning through it. It will intrigue and infuriate in equal measure anyone on the left. Not least for so much that is unstated which should be stated.

It had a shopping list of policies, which merely point up the oddness of some of the charges against him that he’s left wing. He’s not right wing as such, but he’s a pretty moderate centrist. How moderate and centrist?

Well, this moderate and centrist…

Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America.

I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.

I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.

It’s not quite nationalising the top 100 industrial and commercial enterprises. It’s not even the British road to socialism. It’s a bit like spinning on the spot.

Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less – because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.


Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility – that’s the essence of America’s promise.

I can just see David Cameron adopting it line by line.

But that said there were some progressive points he made.

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child or ailing parent.

Side note, think of the private companies in this state where sick days, genuine sick days at that, are expected to be taken out of holiday days. That – to my mind – is an absolute disgrace. Who is lobbying to change that, or change management practices that are essentially a form of bullying?

And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons.

Good. About time. Long past time in fact. And again something that we could profitably look at more closely. Gender based wage disparities in the commercial sector in Ireland are quite something to behold despite the fact that they’re often concealed.

And so on, including universal healthcare.

Some toughish talking on foreign relations:

I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace and who yearn for a better future.

What was interesting was that he eschewed religion, which may be problematic considering that both Channel 4 News and the Guardian reported that large numbers of voters believe him to be a Muslim. Wait for him to tackle that further down the line. Expect it to be a tricky one, how to do it without appearing offensive to Muslims? How to do it full stop?

Patriotism though he tackled head on.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.

So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

And allied to that was a lot of talk about American greatness, American promise, American spirit. The man loves his country. We get it.

Is it going to work? I have no idea. The national polls see McCain and him head and head. But polling from states put him in a most comfortable position. Last night won’t have hurt him at all. Nor will this week, with all its essentially media driven tensions and conflicts. Everyone had their moment in the sun (pity Al Gore though, his speech broadly lost in the noise last night).

I can’t help thinking though of Neil Kinnock and the 1992 election. And not just because of Joe Biden’s dabbling in lack of attribution. There was just a hint last night of the populism of the last Kinnock speech of that election in Sheffield. Just a hint mind you, not least of course because the Kinnock rally was essentially an import of US style campaigning. And therein lies an example of attempting to assess political activity a continent away. It’s easy not to catch the tone of an event (and my direct involvement of US politics was utterly limited to local NY stuff in the late 1980s for a brief time – so, not quite the same 🙂 ). But, 80,000 or not, I think that Obama managed to pull it off without appearing hubristic.

Now comes the hard part.


1. ejh - August 29, 2008

As I recall, last time around, overpaid house Democratic media whore Sidney Blumenthal hailed John Kerry’s effort* as one of the great speeches of political history. I trust he will be performing the same service this week.

[* = yes, the dreadful “reporting for duty” one]


2. splinteredsunrise - August 29, 2008

the ability to see both sides of an equation doesn’t necessarily translate into a clarity of viewpoint

Forgive me, but my mind just flashed to that old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin’s world turns neo-cubist…


3. skidmarx - August 29, 2008

I found myself thinking last night that if we lived in a better world then as a joke Obama could have started his speech “God Damn America…”


4. Claire - August 29, 2008

“It’s easy not to catch the tone of an event”

Well, I do think Americans are viewing the speech as being VERY liberal. We have to remember that the right-left spectrum is so different over there. Over there, Obama’s plan to give free medical and educational support to under-5s is seen as basically communism. So the comments about small businesses etc – this is a US politicians bread and butter. It doesn’t necessarily have the same connotations that it would if said by – for example – David Cameron.

“The man loves his country. We get it.”

Ah, but the thing is, they DON’T get it. Republicans are attacking him precisely on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E0ycYEGtqU

The ad also mentions Jeremiah Wright and his “God Damn America”. Wright’s the reason, I think, he “eschewed religion” – formerly he tackled the Muslim rumours by wearing his Christianity on his sleeve but he can’t do that any more because it allows detractors to bring up Wright yet again – and the fact that Obama hasn’t got a church at the moment. Hmm. He has to come up with a new way to tackle this, but beats me what it could be.


5. Bakunin - August 29, 2008

He is very good at turning a phrase. No one can take that away from him. WBS is correct in noting the difference in the dim-wittedness of Bush compared to someone who can speak in sentences.

I’m not sure what planet Klein is on — the Dems are far from united. Bill couldn’t even stick around for the speech, he was out of there.

I say “God Damn America” at least three times a day. It’s one of my favorite lines.


6. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2008

That’s a point I hadn’t thought about Claire re the liberalness of the speech or not.


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