The Real Problem with the President's Speech

Carol Platt Liebau
Posted: Sep 07, 2012 12:54 PM
Yes, it was "empty." Yes, it lacked substance.  And yes, it was riddled with falsehoods.

But the real problem wasn't the text of the President's speech.  It was the persona of the person delivering it.

Gone was the inspiring, optimistic, hopeful leader of 2008 -- replaced by a hectoring, angry person who seemed determined to squander whatever reservoir of "likability" he has left.  Chin held high and body language defiant, he seemed ready for a fight . . . but not on behalf of the tens of millions who remain unemployed, but against those who have the temerity to challenge his claim for reelection.  2008's apostle of civility and unity was nowhere in evidence, transformed into a bitter politician not above demeaning his opponents with snarky mischaracterizations or ridiculing them with a disgusted snort of laughter. Indeed, for someone we've been told is so bright, it's remarkable that he can't demolish his opponents' arguments without caricaturing them first.

For someone with the President's rhetorical gifts, it isn't hard to attack, or even to inspire.  It is much harder to poke fun at one's opponent while still seeming manly and upright.  Those who are successful at it manage to project the attitude that the dislike is impersonal.  Obama doesn't have that gift, and his attempts to ridicule his opponent diminished him, instead, and made him look petty and small.

The First Lady's speech was aimed at convincing us that Barack Obama is seeking reelection out of nothing but disinterested love.  We heard about "the concern in his eyes" and that, for him, "there is no such thing as 'us' or 'them"."  But his demeanor gave the lie to all that.  What was evident was the determination to win at all costs, the pique at having to beg for another chance rather than grandly assert his right to it, and the bitterness that everything has turned out far differently than he envisioned it four years ago amid the Greek temple.  (One suspects the President is annoyed that many Americans don't share what even Richard Cohen has identified as Joe Biden's -- and his own -- super-sized opinion of his own virtues.)

From the text of the President's speech, it is evident that there were passages that were intended to be intimate, moving, emotional.  And perhaps the greatest fear of the President's opponents is that he would somehow be able to reawaken that emotional bond he forged with so many voters four years ago.

They needn't have worried.  The President took the stage with too much fire in his own belly to be able to rekindle any of the flames of adulation that warmed him last time around.  The only problem? The burn was so clearly to have the chance to be vindicated himself, rather than for another chance to live up to the hopes he awakened in 2008.