1.) The consensus seems to be that this was not one of Obama’s best speeches. What’s missing in this analysis, however, is that most Americans are not actively comparing this speech with all the previous ones Obama has given. In the brief few minutes they give to this speech, most voters’ reactions will be more impressionistic. “Do I like the guy that is standing in front of me right now?” “Do I think he has what it takes?’ On the simple barometer of likability, President Obama did vastly better than the wooden and stiff Romney.
2.) It was more like a State of Union speech. With good reason: one of the flaws of the Republican convention was that it lacked substance. The token phrases of “small government” and “lower taxes” took the place of actual policy debate. I think conservatives fell into the trap of being in an “echo chamber” within their own movement too long. There was a tacit assumption throughout that convention that Americans inherently and naturally approve of a conservative philosophy over a liberal one, and if they just expressed their own core values eloquently enough, the American voter would soon follow. The Democrats noted this lack of concrete specifics, and focused on plunging the sword into this chink in Romney’s armor. In contrast to the vagueness of Romney’s policy ideas, we got (relatively) concrete examples of policy from Obama. To the average voter, I suspect Obama looked and felt more grounded in actual policy making than Romney.
3.) The killer line in Obama’s speech was when he talked about the differing views of government of the Democrats and Republicans:
We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems — (cheers, applause) — any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles — (cheers, applause) — because — because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.
This is a supreme articulation of a liberal, pragmatic view of government. Government can’t solve all our problems, but that doesn’t mean it is the source of all our problems. Claiming that there should be as little government as possible removes a vital tool from our toolbox. Government shouldn’t be an end in itself, but a means to an end. Government should be one tool amongst many.
4.) The emphasis on citizenship was welcome. The Republican convention strangely focused on the individual at the expense of any other determining influences. It became almost in poor taste to note that individuals cannot prosper without a safe, relatively corruption-free government like we have in America. While this fits nicely with the Republicans’ own narrative of extreme self-responsibility, it also threatens to undermine any idea of civic responsibility. The once nationalistic Republican party risks turning into a party of individuals only in it for themselves. It was nice to hear some reference to the civic union that binds us all as “Americans.”