Even before Barack Obama took to the stage for the final speech of the Democratic National Convention, the Democrats had won the convention-off of the last two weeks by doing what conventions are meant to do, give or take some face-to-face politicking and the nitty-gritty procedural elements of nominating a candidate: being good television.
The writing was on the wall -- or really in the set design -- before any of the speakers even opened their mouths. The hokey wood paneling and endless screenage of the Republican National Convention made it look as though two wicked Wal-Mart salesmen, one from the tech department and the other from home goods, had been left to assemble something “impressive.” The Democrats went with a relatively clean, precise, non-vertigo-inducing backdrop.
From there, the DNC rose above in the quality of its speech-making, in the rapid-fire pacing of its presenters, in the palpable passion those speakers had for their president, and in its usage of celebrities (not in prime time unless it’s a George Clooney voice-over). They also won the battle for the indelible image (the big embrace between Clinton and Obama, the release of Obama curled up with the girls watching Michelle’s speech, the Obama family tableau), in the genuinely diverse group of people in the convention center ready to appear in network camera reaction shots. It was a crisp, well-produced, energetic piece of stagecraft (with or without balloons).
The speechifying at the DNC was such that talks immediately lauded by the punditocracy — Deval Patrick, Julian Castro — were overshadowed almost immediately by the speakers that followed. Michelle Obama not only owned the convention's first night, she owned it so thoroughly she seems to have achieved a sort of time travel, making Ann Romney’s speech of a week before retroactively seem like not much at all. On Wednesday, a slim Bill Clinton came onstage to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” apparently a Proustian-level nostalgia cue for almost the entire nation, to give the only performance of either convention as memorable as Clint Eastwood's. The conventions will always be must see-TV for the politically minded, but Michelle and Clinton's speech could have entertained anyone.
Their performances were such that for Obama to hew to the typically desired convention arc — to do better than his wife and his predecessor, to raise the energy — would have taken quite a freaking speech. In keeping with the professionalism of the DNC thus far, with its clear-eyed assessment of what would and would not play, he didn’t exactly try. Last night's speech was intentionally sober and adult. Introduced by Michelle, in at least her third dress of the convention, Obama was serious and calm, slowly working up, emotionally, to the speech’s rousing end. There were a few jokes, the “I approved this message” complaint, the “Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning” dig, but the whole thing was very "there’s a grown-up in charge," very, as Obama put it, “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
Some pundits have opined that Obama’s speech seemed like the careful words of someone who knows he is winning, and was playing not to lose, but the tone of Obama’s speech was based on something less cynical than just that. The heart of the speech was Obama’s move to reenergize and repurpose the themes and catchphrases of his first campaign — “Be the change you want to see in the world,” “Hope” — by reframing them slightly. In last night's crafting, we, the people, and not Obama, “are the change,” we “give him hope.” This idea, that the citizenry is inspiring the president, and not just the other way around, would seem to preclude — not as a matter of speech-making, but as a matter of principle — a certain kind of lavish, self-aggrandizing rhetoric. If we really are the change and the hope, there is only so much verbal showboating Obama might want to do, lest he undermine his very premise.
Obama's speech was the least exciting of the DNC's big three speeches, but it wasn’t a misstep. Those first two speeches were doozies, and Obama's turn at the mic was presidential, uplifting, if less showy, not less felt. And when it was over, Michelle came onstage with Malia and Sasha, so big now, and grabbed Obama’s waist from behind. They made for the perfect picture.