CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Game on, now. President Obama fired ’em up tonight and now all sides are ready to go officially on to the fall campaign which will be the visible manifestation of the “avalanche of money and advertising” which President Obama warned about. That onslaught will be punctuated three times in October by the presidential debates (oh I know, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will spar once as well, but I’m talking about the main event). The president’s speech marked the last national moment before those debates and his best single chance to make his case to the country.
That case is getting mixed initial reviews from the punditverse, especially for lacking in programmatic specifics. Here are seven things he did right:
Working the values. For 20 years, winning Democrats have focused on the values of hard work and playing by the rules. They appeal to swing voters and they help inoculate the party of activist government from charges that they want to give hand outs to the undeserving poor at the cost of the suffering middle class. Obama repeatedly emphasized the formulation of hard work and equal opportunity, defining the American dream as “the promise that hard work will pay off; that responsibility will be rewarded; that everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.” And later: “We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it.”
A balancing act. Democrats (not unreasonably) paint the GOP as a party that has been lost to rigid ideologues unwilling to compromise. In his speech tonight Obama worked to present a nuanced view of governance, not only explicitly saying that “no party has a monopoly on wisdom,” but on a couple of other instances acknowledging the limitations of his party’s animating philosophy of active government. He cautioned the party of FDR, for example, that “not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”
Choose or lose. Since the start of the campaign, Team Obama has been determined to not let this election simply devolve into a referendum on the president’s record. In their view, the president’s clearest path to victory was to turn it into a choice between two competing visions—and while the Romney campaign initially seemed intent on a referendum campaign, their selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as vice presidential nominee solidified the choice narrative. Obama drove that frame, mentioning the notion of a choice or voters choosing at least 10 times in the first half of the speech, which was the more policy-oriented part of it.
Commanding-in-chief. Obama saluted the military, not simply those currently serving but those who have come home and are still owed a debt of thanks from the nation they served. This section had the dual value of being the right policy but also the right politics, exploiting Romney’s silence regarding the troops last week. It’s true that voters won’t cast their ballots based on foreign policy issues, but this respect for the military becomes one factor shaping Americans’ overall view of Obama as president and commander in chief. And in the longer term, Obama has an opportunity to close the gap Democrats have had on national security issues for more than 30 years.
Map to the future. According to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, focus group participants’ number one question for Obama had been where he wants to take the country in a second term. And while he may not have laid out a State of the Union-style policy blueprint, he set out signposts for what he wants to accomplish.
Sober poetry. The president has a well deserved reputation as an accomplished orator, but the nation’s mood and his own incumbency present a challenge to his instinct for a singing speech. He tempered it by emphasizing—in a manner reminiscent of John F. Kennedy and his campaign for a “New Frontier” of challenges—that he doesn’t promise an easy road. “The path we offer may be harder,” he told voters, “but it leads to a better place.”
No change on hope. Even in times that require a somber note, however, voters want aspiration and optimism. It’s a truism in politics that the most optimistic candidate wins the election and so Obama was wise to end on a note that acknowledged the tough times but expressed unalloyed optimism (though it might have been hard to hear over the roar of the crowd): “We draw strength from our victories, 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.” Amen.