Where’s the beef?
That’s what people—OK, pundits—have been asking about President Obama’s acceptance speech, which was eloquent and passionate but didn’t make a rousing defense of his record or really lay out a vision of what his presidency is about and why it should continue for four more years.
Sure, there were references to the hope and change that propelled him into the Oval Office in 2008. And there were some sharp, nasty swipes at the Republican ticket. And there were attempts to lay out a path forward, through a series of proposals on manufacturing, energy production, and education.
But they were more like goals than programs, and there was no sense of how they might get through a Republican House that would likely chew them up and spit them out.
Nor was there much talk about the debt or deficit, except for a passing reference to the Simpson-Bowles debt commission which the president ignored (and Rep. Paul Ryan voted against). If he’s reelected that will almost certainly be the central issue of his administration.
Unlike former President Bill Clinton on Wednesday night, President Obama did not deliver a real narrative about his administration—what it has tried to do, the opposition it faced, how successful it was, even what it might have done differently.
Maybe the president thought surrogates like former President Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered a surprisingly good speech not in prime time, had dug the ditches and now he could soar in the clouds.
And he did—at times. And many hard-core Democrats and Obama supporters like Chris Matthews were enthralled.
Still, liberal commentator Michael Tomasky called the speech “dull and pedestrian…the rhetorical equivalent…of running out the clock.”
And even a sympathizer like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell was underwhelmed: “There wasn’t a whole lot of new policy, except on education. But certainly, this was a way to rally the troops. I would say it was more prose than poetry.”
More prose than poetry. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan knows a thing or two about poetic speeches. Her verdict: “stale and empty. He’s run out of juice.”
Conservative Charles Krauthammer on Fox was even less charitable:
I was stunned. This is a man who gave one of the great speeches of our time in 2004, and he gave one of the emptiest speeches I have ever heard on a national stage. Yes, it had cadence, and yes, there were deceptions in it, but that is not what is so striking about it. There was nothing in it.
I wouldn’t go that far—I heard emptier speeches at this convention and at the RNC in Tampa last week. And Krauthammer was really wrong about President Clinton’s speech Wednesday—he called it “a giant swing and a miss.”
But after the great build up of the last few days—from Mayor Julian Castro and Michelle Obama to Bill Clinton—President Obama didn’t really pull together all the themes of this convention in a way that would drive the themes of the campaign forward and persuade independent voters to extend his contract.
I don’t think Mitt Romney sealed the deal in Tampa last week, either, which is why this campaign may well continue as a battle of the lesser of two evils, probably through Election Day.