President Obama inexplicably missed a wide open opportunity to break open the election race last night. With another poor jobs report coming out this morning, it was imperative that his speech be overwhelmingly good to help blunt the impact on voters. The speech was average and the jobs report was worse than expected. Not a good end to a week that had been going pretty well for Democrats.
With a captivated national audience watching, President Obama delivered a second-rate political speech, micro-targeted at audiences in Michigan, Ohio and Iowa. His speech clearly indicated that he has abandoned any notion of a mandate election. He has largely given up on trying to convince doubtful voters nationwide, choosing instead to zone in on a couple of swing states that will allow him to narrowly skid by with just over 270 electoral votes.
Yesterday I presented a list of 10 things to look for in this speech. Here is a review of how the speech answered those questions:
1) How will Obama handle the question of “are you better off than you were 4 years ago?” He tried very hard to paint a picture of what peril the government he inherited faced when he took office in January of 2009. He then tried to articulate how his actions staved off a worse crisis. However, if you don’t work for the auto industry, Obama offered no particular reason why you are better off than you were 4 years ago. He had the stage all to himself on this night to answer that critical question and largely whiffed.
2) Will Obama offer a robust defense of his health care law? No. Obama barely mentioned it in a couple of loose lines that were more tied to his attempt to tell a story than defend a policy.
3) What factor will Romney play in the speech? President Obama did not mention Romney by name at all. However, the president took a few jabs at the Republican brand as well as Romney. The two most pointed lines in the speech were when the President said, “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy, (LAUGHTER) but from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly. After all, you don’t call Russia our number one enemy, not Al Qaeda, Russia, unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.” Romney botched the Commander-in-Chief test at his own convention by not speaking about the troops deployed on behalf of our nation. President Obama, who has largely ignored military issues over the past 4 years, is now trying to seize on the fact that he is already in that role. His lines about foreign policy were intended to disqualify Romney based on his lack of foreign policy experience. An odd move coming from a man who faced this same criticism in 2008.
4) Will Obama propose a 5 point economic plan of his own tonight? Sort of. Obama rattled off a list of goals ranging from energy independence by 2020 to significantly raising American exports by 2014. There were precious few specifics and the President did not explain how his plans would affect the wallets of individuals. This was a big miss for a President facing an unemployment rate stuck above 8%.
5) How much emphasis will Obama put on foreign policy? I said yesterday that his pollsters show high approval ratings on national security. Sure enough, Obama hit Romney hard on it. We’ll see if anyone was paying attention to it.
6) The last 5 minutes (the call-to-action portion) of this speech was pretty good. I don’t know that it was memorable but it did excite his supporters in the convention hall. He did admit to having made some mistakes and in his own way asked for a second chance. However, it lacked the sincerity that voters look for before rewarding officials who admit mistakes. His ego refused to allow him to list any specific mistakes and it could cost him swing state voters who were looking for some humbleness.
7) Will we hear something new tonight? The President did present a new argument about citizenship, saying it means looking out for each other as fellow countrymen and women. He also argued that citizens are the hope and change the country needs, meaning he is merely their leader, not the embodiment of the change itself. This will be very effective in rallying his base; but, comes across cold and hollow to ’08 supporters who have heard it all before.
8) How will Obama handle social issues? The President chose not to fervently endorse gay marriage at the convention. Other than a passing quote about lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Obama punted on the issue. He was virtually silent on abortion rights, gun laws, religious freedom, drug laws, etc. I am not surprised he skipped it. The polling on these issues is still too close to risk for a President on the edge of losing.
9) Does he give some love to environmentalists? A little. He included a few lines about global climate change, but offered very few specifics. In fact, he devoted more time to the issue of opening up more lands for natural gas exploration. He insisted those new facilities would be Eco-friendly. It was probably not a speech green activists were thrilled with.
10) Did Obama define his campaign slogan “forward”? What does that mean? Forward into what? Forward where? Where are we going? Where are you taking us? What is you vision for the America of 2016? No, not in any detail.
Perhaps the most pointed and memorable line of the speech was this one towards the tail end:
“You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed, and so have I.”
“I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.”
It was a gentle reminder to voters that he is not running for president, he already occupies the office and is seeking affirmation for a second term. In that same vein, he is reminding voters that Romney is just a candidate who has never held the office and thus needs to cross a trust threshold that he already crossed in ’08.
It was an attempt to disqualify Romney as a credible alternative.
Overall, this speech gets a “B-.” He was very convincing as a politician and may have solidified his lead in southeast Michigan, northwestern Ohio and eastern Iowa. However, he needed to convince more voters that his words still mean something by explaining his first term in more detail and articulating a real vision for a second term. He did neither, and thus missed a wide open chance to shove Romney into an electoral vote dungeon.
The debates will be the next critical test for these two candidates on a national stage. The first one may very well decide the election. Romney still needs to cross a trust threshold with voters. The debates are his best chance to do it and gain some kind of lasting advantage.
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