For one, I agree with the left-leaning Michael Tomasky:
Let’s be blunt. Barack Obama gave a dull and pedestrian speech tonight, with nary an interesting thematic device, policy detail, or even one turn of phrase.
I didn’t like the lack of specifics at all. The thing I loved most about the Clinton speech was the specifics. The 24 vs. 42 million jobs created under Republican and Democratic administrations, the explanation of why Romney “restoring” that $716 billion would deplete the Medicare Trust Fund more quickly: that’s great stuff. And especially important, I think, in an election like this one. When you’re running against people to whom facts are irrelevant, the way you kill them is with facts. Not with rhetoric that’s vague and too subtle.
The night’s big thematic device, the “it wasn’t me, it was you” business, sounded like a somewhat forced attempt, frankly, to come up with…something. He was trying to re-inspire the Obamabots of 2008. But it felt very superficial to me. Nothing in this speech was developed, nothing given hard thought, nothing that built to a great moment. Jeezy peezy, did Mitt Romney give a better speech last week? Not quite, but almost.
Right. Tomasky liked Obama's citizenship schtick, but I hated it. Here's why:
These are enduring, legitimate disagreements between the two sides, both of which remain fundamentally American in their outlook. The history of the United States cannot be told without both narratives.
Yet Barack Obama would have none of that last night. He explained the choice in terms of “citizenship” – the idea that we all have responsibilities as well as rights, that there is a sense of shared responsibility that binds us together, and that the government is not about what is done “for” us, but “by” us.
The opposition, on the other hand, wants limited inclusiveness, a laissez-faire policy of economics, the domination of special interests and lobbyists, and a general sense that everybody is on their own.
The first idea, that of “citizenship,” is a quintessentially American idea, and Obama is right to have picked up on these themes from our history. Yet he turned them into partisan tropes last night. After all, both sides agree with these basic premises – the real debate is what comes next. Hamiltonians have one answer and modern progressives have another. The implication of his speech last night was that progressives have a monopoly on these values, and that opposition to their economic and social program is somehow inconsistent with them.
As for this so-called opposition, there has been no ideology at any point throughout American history that trumpets these values. His description is a gross mischaracterization of conservative policy (e.g. “you’re on your own”) and a ridiculous assertion that the political sins of both sides (e.g. special interest politicking) are actually the sins of just one side.
This is one of the great ironies of the Obama administration. He promised to unite us around common themes and values that we all share, but by connecting them so directly to his controversial agenda, he has time and again divided us. He has a Manichean view of American politics – he and his allies embody all of the goodness and light that America represents and his opponents represent nothing but the darkness.
There has been a growing polarization in this country over the last few decades that moves beyond matters of simple partisan support. Increasingly, it seems, one side of this great divide views the other side as somehow illegitimate. No leader since at least Richard Nixon has done more to exacerbate this dangerous tension. By inevitably redrafting shared values as Democratic ones, he feeds the impulse on the left that the right is un-American, he infuriates the right for what are vicious insults, and he lives those in the middle of the country scratching their heads.
He is the most partisan president in generations.
Exactly. High-minded rhetoric aside, this was a divisive, partisan speech, where Obama dishonestly employed strawmen to prop up his case. At least Clinton had the courtesy to spell out a few GOP positions. Obama's was a talk that was geared to his partisan base, not to independents (that I could see) and certainly not to anyone right-of-center. For those folks whose support for Romney hangs by a thread--and I am in that category--Obama didn't persuade, he irked. He wasn't talking as a president for all the people. Rather, he was talking to the folks in that room. So much for moving to the center. It was a 50-plus-1 president giving a 50-plus-1 monologue, if that. Clinton aside, I saw no movement to the center this whole week. Isn't that what presidents and parties do when primary season is over? It didn't happen, and it was perfectly encapsulated by the party's most unscripted moment. Speaking in a downsized arena seems a perfect metaphor for that event.
Peter Beinart is another liberal who came away less than bedazzled.
Obama’s acceptance speech had two apparent goals: The first was to lay out an agenda for the next four years so people feel they have something forward-looking to vote for. The second was to recapture the sense of hope that defined Obama’s 2008 campaign.
On paper, he did both things. But what the speech lacked was a coherent explanation of the nightmare this country has gone through for the last four years. Republicans are laying the Great Recession at Obama’s feet. Obama is saying that Republicans created it and, if elected, will make it worse. To win that argument, Obama needed to explain why the financial crisis happened, and he didn’t. Yes, he mocked the GOP for proposing tax cuts as the answer to every problem, but the financial crisis didn’t happen because of tax cuts. It happened, in large measure, because Republican and some Democratic politicians—blinded by free-market fundamentalism and Wall Street largesse—allowed bankers to create unregulated markets in which they gambled the savings of millions of Americans, knowing that if their bets failed, they wouldn’t be the ones to lose their homes and their life’s savings.
Obama should have told that story, and then gone at Romney for doubling down on the ideology that almost brought America to its knees. Then he should have contrasted that with his own interventions to protect people who the market has failed: whether they be auto workers or people with sick kids.
Instead, the speech felt at times like a laundry list of policy goals, at others like an overly vague call for hope, patriotism, togetherness etc. It offered a narrative of Barack Obama’s last four years: the path from fresh, hopeful candidate to a president more aware of the tragic burdens of the office. But it didn’t offer a narrative of America’s experience of the last four years. Obama is great at evoking what’s best about America, especially since he represents it. But tonight he turned out to be less good at what—forgive me—Bill Clinton does so well: telling a story that links what’s happened in people’s lives to what’s happened in the world.
Obama couldn't downtalk the financial sector the way Beinart wanted as it is still one of his biggest financial backers...
On the facts, Obama's claim to cut our deficits by $4 trillion is mostly gimmick, and there were other shortcomings. Obama can still claim the mantle of being less dishonest than Romney. So there's that.
But, overall, here is what I came away with after last night. I may or may not vote for Romney, but after what Obama told me last evening, there's not a chance in hell that I'll vote for the incumbent. I don't believe I'm the only one in that position. Come to think of it, Obama's speech actually did persuade.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum, another disappointed liberal:
That's a good riff. But it came early in the speech, and after a couple of pro forma sentences about tax cuts for millionaires (he's against them) Obama was off on an entirely unrelated riff about common effort, shared responsibility, and bold, persistent experimentation. Then he was off to the car industry. Then energy. Then a throwaway line about global warming. And all of these riffs were just that: short collections of platitudes with no real meat behind them and no promise of what a second term might bring.
After all that excellent build-up, instead of this...
...snakes and sparklers.