A few hours before Barack Obama stepped to the podium at the Time-Warner Cable Arena, the president received advance notice of the disappointing numbers in the government's jobs report. The slow pace of job creation is the Achilles' heel for the Obama campaign, the weakest point where Romney has any hope of inflicting real damage. Yet Obama's speech devoted very little attention to any concrete plans for addressing the jobs crisis. He didn't even mention the word "unemployment." He didn't even try to defend his economic record during his first term.
As the capper to a convention full of stunning dramatic speeches that were equal parts inspiring and packed with detail and convincing arguments, Obama's speech came as a disappointment to many of the people who are paid to write about his speeches. As someone who has watched every major Obama address since 2004, I felt their pain. If you already had decided that Obama was a guy long on rhetoric and short on grit, there was nothing to change that impression in his convention speech. And if you were looking for a serious plan on how to boost job growth -- particularly in the short term, the here and now -- you were flabbergasted.
And even as you tried to mull over the surprise that a politician legendary for his speech-making ability had delivered a lesser effort, along came the job numbers. We don't know for sure what the electoral consequences of those numbers will be, but for Democrats, it's hard to avoid a sense of buzz kill. And Obama knew those numbers were coming? Why didn't he provide some cover?
What's all the more perplexing is that the one thing we know for sure is that the structure and content of Obama's speech was no accident. I can't remember a convention scripted more carefully or successfully. Everyone had their part to play -- whether it was Michelle Obama revving up the base with her magnificent narrative pulling together family background and political destiny, or Bill Clinton's glorious wonkfest, or John Kerry's savage foreign policy disembowelment of Romney, or Sandra Fluke's stirring foray into women's reproductive health. There can be little doubt; this was the speech Obama was supposed to give.
So what's up? Here are a few possibilities.
1) A speech full of policy proposals would have been useless, because Republicans would never let them happen.
We've heard Obama make lists of things he'd like to do, most often at State of the Union speeches. But ever since the midterm elections they've been suffused in an aura of wishful thinking. Republicans will not loosen the taps for any kind of spending program substantive enough to make a dramatic impact on jobs. The Obama administration already came up with a plan -- the American Jobs Act -- and Republicans quashed it. To stand in front of the nation and propose a job creation platform that everyone listening knows will crash into gridlock would be a waste of valuable time, and imply a kind of quixotic unwillingness to face reality.
2) Blaming Republicans for a lack of progress, in the context of defending what he's already tried to do, would be, uh, defensive.
When you are accepting your party's nomination for a second term as president, you don't want to sound defensive. Even worse, as Ezra Klein notes, you don't want to remind voters how bad things really are. Obama's surrogates had already made the case on GOP obstructionism. They'd already described how deep the hole was that Obama had to climb out of. And, seriously, we've already heard Obama make that case. Obama made a clear choice: not to be defensive and not to be angry. He can save the rage for his stump speech, when he's out on the campaign trail working his base.
3) Framing the election as a choice between two fundamentally different approaches to government was the strategically smart move.
This is the key to understanding the absence of a clear program on jobs in Obama's speech. Successfully attacking Obama on jobs is Romney's only chance for the White House. But for the Obama campaign, defense is not the parallel option. Obama's best chance to win involves making clear to voters on the fence just how much is at stake. Not only does this approach finesse the issue of jobs, but it has the added advantage of being true. The Republican and Democratic parties offer as stark a choice for the future as we've seen in decades. The more voters consider whether the current GOP platform -- lower taxes for the rich, less regulation and a greatly constrained safety net -- is how they really want to approach the future, the better it will be for Obama.
Will it work? We've got two months before we find out for sure. But it makes sense. Even a good jobs number this morning would have been unlikely to change attitudes on the economy that have been forming for years. So why not change the conversation?