They worried he’d be too black, too angry, too intellectual, too much the ‘celeb’ which the McCain campaign has tried to paint him as (which is kind of a strange line of attack, considering the country elected Republican Ronald Reagan as President and California elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California). In the end Barack Obama eschewed his lofty rhetoric for what had to be his first speech as leader-in-waiting, waiving his ‘change’ motif for a grounded description of what he’d do in office, and why he’s the right man for the job. And it was brilliant, it was the rarest of things – positive politics, engaging both the emotional heart and practical mind. As many have remarked since, he offered the electorate the chance to respect the office of President once again, after the last two incumbents’ abuse of it. But what got me the most was this:
He said explicitly at one point, “What the naysayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me. It’s been about you.”
In saying this he dismissed the relevance of his celebrity in a stroke, but the line accomplished more than just that. He de-personalised the contest and reoriented it back to what the people wanted, disarming a powerful Republican criticism of him in recent weeks. It’s a rare thing for any politician to give up power, particularly at their most powerful, making it a dramatic and inspired move. He planned his speech awfully well, then taking the ball Bill Clinton got rolling on easily tying McCain to Bush and running with it:
“But the record’s clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90% of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90% of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10% chance on change.
The truth is, on issue after issue that would make a difference in your lives – on healthcare and education and the economy – Senator McCain has been anything but independent. He said that our economy has made “great progress” under this president. He said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. And when one of his chief advisers – the man who wrote his economic plan – was talking about the anxiety Americans are feeling, he said that we were just suffering from a “mental recession,” and that we’ve become, and I quote, “a nation of whiners”.
A nation of whiners? Tell that to the proud auto workers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made. Tell that to the military families who shoulder their burdens silently as they watch their loved ones leave for their third or fourth or fifth tour of duty. These are not whiners. They work hard and give back and keep going without complaint. These are the Americans that I know.”
He hammered him on foreign policy:
For while Senator McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats we face. When John McCain said we could just “muddle through” in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell – but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.
And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government, and even the Bush administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79bn surplus while we’re wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.
That’s not the judgment we need. That won’t keep America safe. We need a president who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past.
And he did after all return to his post-red/blue states narrative of 2004, showing a way forward for all Americans together:
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the second amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America’s promise – the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.
He left the criticisms of the campaign fundamentally addressed and defused, and set up the general election on his terms, whilst attacking McCain without losing the dignity which has defined his campaign. He gave up power on national television to prove he hadn’t been consumed by his own celebrity, and demonstrated a Veep in the wings who can actually get his promise of change enacted. This is what it’s supposed to be about. We’ve seen a journey of a man who was all about inspiration but no substance at the beginning of the campaign, developing into quite possibly the most important world leader in a generation. It’s back to being his to lose and he really has to win, for every right minded person’s sake. Andrew Sullivan puts it far better when he says:
It was a liberal speech, more unabashedly, unashamedly liberal than any Democratic acceptance speech since the great era of American liberalism. But it made the case for that liberalism – in the context of the decline of the American dream, and the rise of cynicism and the collapse of cultural unity. His ability to portray that liberalism as a patriotic, unifying, ennobling tradition makes him the most lethal and remarkable Democratic figure since John F Kennedy.
The entire speech is here: