CHARLOTTE, NC –– President Barack Obama, in a crisp, straight-forward speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, laid out the central choice embodied in his re-election campaign.
“Over the next few years,” said the president, “big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come. On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
Obama’s speech did not have the rhetorical flash of former President Bill Clinton, or the moving narrative of First Lady Michelle Obama, or the fire-in-the-belly grit of Vice President Joe Biden. But it did something else, something quite substantial, in knitting together all the themes we had heard — and for those in the hall, that was something like 15 hours of speeches across three days — crystallizing the complex and ramified into the simple logic of decision-making.
In a word, the speech was presidential. Because while we do expect our presidents to have rhetorical flash (“Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.”) and self-revelatory (“I began my career helping people in the shadow of a shuttered steel mill, at a time when too many good jobs were starting to move overseas.”) and even with a bit of grit (“”Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”), at the end of the day, we know that the person in the Oval Office needs to have, in addition to those necessary-but-not-sufficient skills, a powerful ability to synthesize.
We need a president who can look out across the pressing challenges, the spectrum of issues, the diversity of voices — and anyone who attended to the full content of previous 15 hours could not miss their range and import — and, guided by their values, develop a vision and manage a path forward. It is an act of synthesis, not brute-force reduction to binary choices so painfully on display in Tampa.
In an election, this is of necessity reduced to a single decision point, a “go-no-go” decision (like the one pointedly evoked multiple times during the convention. You know the one I mean.)
And in perhaps the boldest rhetorical move, Obama turned this entire process inside out to show us how implicated we, the voters are: “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.”
It was a brilliant way to make his case. “As I stand here tonight,” Obama said, “I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m naïve about the magnitude of our challenges. I’m hopeful because of you.”
Because if you had listened, really listened to what speaker after speaker testified to in Charlotte, and you had followed the logic of Obama’s framing (Sandra Fluke said it best: “Six months from now, you’re going to be living in one of these futures.”), and if you were the kind of person that the President thought you were — the kind of person you hope, in your best moments, to be — then you had to rise above the cynicism or “other voices will fill the void.”