When President Obama is set to deliver a major speech for a national audience, he faces the unfortunate hurdle of high expectations. Americans have come to expect every speech to soar with inspirational rhetoric, leaving supporters -- and maybe even a few detractors -- with goose bumps.
By this standard, I've seen many suggest Obama's convention address fell short last night, because the speech didn't manage to levitate him, his audience, and the arena. But what I saw was something else -- this Obama, compared to the one from four years ago, is a little older, a little grayer, and a little wiser. He's now less lofty and more grounded, less youthful and more mature.
In Charlotte last night, we didn't see a candidate; we saw a president.
One of the keys to the speech was establishing the presidential campaign as a race of wildly different visions. For much of the year, the Republicans' goal was to simply make 2012 a referendum on the incumbent -- if you're not satisfied with the status quo, vote for the challenger, no matter who he is or what he's offering.
Obama sought to put that to rest once and for all -- he used the word "choice" or "choose" literally 20 times -- telling the audience the truth: "[W]hen all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs, the economy; taxes and deficits; energy, education; war and peace, decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children's lives for decades to come. And 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."
What's more, I was struck by how forward-thinking the speech was. In my notes before Obama began speaking, I made two columns: one for his defense of his record, another for his critiques of Romney/Ryan. What I actually needed was a third column to document what the president intends to do if given a second term, including combatting the climate crisis and "some nation-building right here at home."
But Obama's overarching point was a spirited defense of his vision of government, which he summarized in one word: "citizenship."
If the driving debate of the American experiment is the conflict between our individualism and our sense that we're all in this together -- you've all read Our Divided Political Heart, right? -- this was the president's opportunity to make the case for the latter. A week after Republican convention speakers rejected the very idea of activist public institution providing a foundation for shared prosperity, Obama used his speech to push back.
"[W]e also believe in something called citizenship -- a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.
"We believe that when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better.
"We believe that when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can't afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people's homes, and so is the entire economy.
"We believe the little girl who's offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs, or the scientist who cures cancer, or the President of the United States, and it's in our power to give her that chance.
"We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don't want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don't want bailouts for banks that break the rules. We don't think the government can solve all our problems. But we don't think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we're told to blame for our troubles.
"Because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.... As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."
After speakers in Tampa spent three days telling Americans they are on their own, they better hope they have wealthy parents with disposable income, and they should rely on vouchers and coupons once the pillars of our society have been privatized, Obama's call for national responsibility was most welcome.
I don't know whether the president left viewers feeling as elated as, say, the "Yes, We Can" speech, but I was nevertheless satisfied with the address that was equal parts sober and hopeful, serious and optimistic.