Obama Gets Serious


The famous Greek amphitheatre didn’t look all Alexander the Great if you were there. It looked instead like the big front display window at Macy’s during Presidents Day Sales Weekend. You expected to see “Sofas 40% off!” in a running line on the bottom of the screen. A friend said the columns looked like “a ballroom divider at the Hyatt Hotel.”

Barack ObamaIt wasn’t until the end of the speech that I thought I understood what the Obama people were doing. The pillars, the suggestion of hallowed halls of government, were meant to evoke the mood and the moment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial exactly 45 years before. It was all meant to evoke an older era, and to suggest an urgent message.

The speech itself lacked lift but had heft. It wasn’t precisely long on hope, but I think it showed audacity. In fact, by the end of the speech I thought it was quite a gamble.

This was not a “Happy Days Are Here Again.” This was not Smiling O. He was not the charmer or the celebrity, and he didn’t try much humor. Mr. Obama often looked stern, and somewhat indignant, certainly serious throughout.

There was a funny thing that marked the entire production, a mix of sight and sound that wasn’t a colliding of sight and sound but was–well, unusual. At the end of the speech there were fireworks and colorful confetti shot from a cannon—the picture was bright and beautiful as the floodlights spanned the crowd and picked up flag-waving kids and happy grandmas in big hats. But the sound of the event, the music that filled the hall at the close of the speech, wasn’t your basic upbeat convention music, part Vegas and part high school marching band. It was instead muted, softly orchestral. It was like the music they play in the background in a big movie just after a big battle, when everyone’s absorbing what happened.

It was all very interesting, and surprising. You could see it coming in the biographical film they used to introduce Mr. Obama. It was lovely, full of unusual shots and lingerings on images, but it was similarly muted, low-key, without any particular joy. I think I am correct in detecting, in the background score, some of the more tender music from “A River Runs Through It” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

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I dwell on the look and sound of things. But the look and sound of things is part of what a convention is about. And the Obama people, a canny lot, tend to think seriously about things like tone.

Let’s get to words, and meaning.

Thematically it was a mixed bag. Part Go Get McCain, Make Him Fire Back Intemperately in St. Paul. Part jeremiad on the miseries of the past eight years. Part populist hymn. Part replay of Mr. Obama’s strong purple-state rhetoric of the 2004 convention keynote address that put him on the map.

It started out slow, picked up with a few good lines. “We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On Nov. 4, we must stand up and say: ‘Eight is enough.’“ On John McCain’s voting record: “What does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90% of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10% chance on change.” He went at Republicans in an old Democrat style, with a populist tinge. “In Washington they call this the Ownership Society, but what that really means is: You’re on your own.”

He spoke of the struggles of his hardworking grandparents and his single mother, and in doing so took on criticisms that have been leveled at him. “I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes.”

You’ve seen by now reports on specific promises. He’ll change the tax code to be tougher on corporations and easier on workers, eliminate the capital gains tax for small businesses, and cut taxes for “95% of all working families.” He said Washington has been “talking about our oil addiction for the last 30 years, and John McCain has been there for 26 of them.” (I think Mr. McCain was sitting next to Joe Biden.)

There were some standard, and rather tired, rhetorical tropes. One of McCain’s advisers said Americans are economic whiners? “Tell that to the proud auto workers . . .” “Tell that to the military families . . .” A welter of issues were picked up, mentioned, dropped: bankruptcy law, family leave, energy, education.

But about halfway through, Mr. Obama pivoted into Iraq, and here the crowd seemed to lean forward. “John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell—but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.” “John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war. That’s not the judgment we need.”

“You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq. . . . You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances.”

But where the speech—and the crowd—came alive, was in the area Mr. Obama has used so effectively in the past, specifically in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address. The old “partisan playbook” won’t do. Republicans try to tear Democrats down, but “patriotism has no party,” “we all put our country first.” We must “bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

He conceded that he is not the “likeliest” candidate for the presidency, that “I don’t fit the typical pedigree”—that was a shot at the Bushes of Kennebunkport—but change is needed, and change doesn’t “come from Washington,” it “comes to Washington.”

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He ended with a reference to Dr. King’s speech, an occasion when “Americans from every corner of this land” came “to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.”

It was at this point that the meaning of the pillars became clearer. And in fact, at this point, bathed in soft lights, they did look rather stately.

All in all, a muted affair. But not one without power.

I think Mr. Obama decided it didn’t matter if he repeated much of what he’s said on the campaign trail before, which he had, because more than 30 million people were watching, and for a lot of them what he was saying was new. I think he decided to show an America that hadn’t fully absorbed him that he was a person of seriousness and stature. I think he was saying, I’m a surprising person, but I can be president. I’m attractive, but I have depth. And by the way, the past eight years? I will be so much better than that. Take a chance. Not a gamble, a chance.

Will it work? We’ll see the polls on the final convention bounce soon. We’ll know some of the answer then. But I have a feeling this speech will be like the Europe trip. It will take time for people to let it sink in, and decide what they think. And I’ll tell you, Mr. Obama left a lot of space for Mr. McCain to play the happy warrior next week. He left the Republicans a big opportunity to wield against him, in contrast, humor, and wit, and even something approximating joy.