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On What I Wanted to Hear from Obama

President Obama gave his official acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, and it was by normal standards, a good speech. It was a good speech in the same way that candidate Obama was known for giving good speeches. It was full of hope and optimism; it was level-headed and mostly fair-minded; it provided a laundry list of goals. But it was not an effective speech. In my mind, the convention speeches exist not just to rally the political base, but also to grab onto what few undecided or loosely-committed voters are left in the process who may be tuning in for the first time–or who at the very least will be hearing about politics somewhat more than during non-convention weeks. In this regard, I think Barack Obama failed.

As I noted about the Republican National Convention last week, there are always certain goals in terms of themes to hit and arguments to be made during the course of a convention. In my unprofessional opinion, the goals for the president this week should have been to 1) cast a positive light on his record and 2) explain how his next four years would be better for the American people than Mitt Romney’s next four years. This approach would still allow him to attack the policies of his opponent, but would also fight back against two key arguments made by his detractors: that he is avoiding his record because he has nothing to brag about and that he lacks a clear vision for America’s future or the ability to deliver on that vision. Embedded in that task, though, is to also make a case for his vision.

Seen through that light, I can’t say that I was overly impressed. The speech started out very strong, with a simple reminder that campaigns can wear on all of us as minor issues become major distractions from the real job at hand. He also did an excellent job of subtly highlighting his vision for the role of government (though I thought it should have been far less subtle). In fighting the notion that he is nothing but a big government quasi-socialist, Obama stated that “not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.” He clarified that government “has a role” in preparing the American workforce for the jobs that are available at home, but added that “teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you’ve gotta do the work.”

However, it wasn’t all shying away from government. Obama also stated that “those of us who believe government can be a force for good should work harder than anyone to reform it, so that it’s leaner, and more efficient, and more responsive to the American people.” (emphasis added). Meanwhile he called on the notion of citizenship and working together to push back against the idea that he attributes to his opponents: “that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.” These lines were probably pretty good and should probably have been included in any version of his speech.

But enough about what he did say. Let’s talk about what Obama should have said. If I were Barack Obama, early into the speech I would have addressed my opponents’ biggest criticism head on. I would have stated that “my opponent claims that I have no record on which to run. My opponent says I’m running away from my record instead of running on my record. So let’s address my record as president.” Then, issue by issue, I would follow format of 1) What I’ve done; 2) The positive effects of that action; 3) What still needs to be done; 4) My plan to accomplish part three.

For instance, Obama could have said of health care that he signed into legislation the largest health care reform bill in modern American history which will extend coverage to X number of people, end denial based on pre-existing conditions, set up transparent insurance exchanges in each state. However, more must be done to slow the rising costs of health care and to ensure that Medicaid and Medicare become financially viable. My plan to do so is ______.

On the military, Obama could have said that he ended the war in Iraq and ordered the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden, but we still have troops in Afghanistan and terror remains a force against which we must be vigilant. With the input from my military advisers, I have a plan to wind down the fight in Afghanistan and on the home front, [insert security plan here].

On the financial collapse, he could have outlined the purpose and intent of the Dodd-Frank Act, the mortgage relief plans and settlement, and how they helped… but also what they failed to accomplish. And then he could have laid out an idea for how to accomplish more on those fronts (especially the home markets).

On jobs, he could highlight the reversal from job loss to job gains and the declining trend of the unemployment rate, but stated the obvious that too many Americans are still without work. Instead of using this as an opportunity to mention that his jobs bill is still stalled in Congress, he could have re-stated or re-packaged some of the more popular ideas from the bill as a means to move forward.

By now you get the idea. The point I’m making by dragging this exercise out for so long is two-fold. First, you’ll notice that I left a lot of blanks in there. That’s because even after beginning his speech by criticizing his opponents for stating what they want to do without how they want to do it, Obama’s speech mostly went on to do the same. That is a very basic mistake that was picked up on immediately by Fox News and several others.

Secondly, though, is to highlight that on virtually every single issue facing the country right now, a plan has been hatched, action taken, progress made, and more is left to be done. I have yet to get around to writing my blog about what I don’t like about Obama and his presidency, so for now you’ll have to take my word that I think he’s solidly mediocre. I think he has made mistakes. I think the recovery could have and should have gone better. But I also do not think he is moving the country backward because all observable data save the national debt tells me that isn’t the case. On every single issue, work is being done. I didn’t even mention energy (higher domestic oil production, lower foreign reliance), women’s rights (I’m talking Lilly Ledbetter, not contraception), gay rights (repealed don’t ask, don’t tell), and a host of other issues.

If I was Obama (or even his speechwriter), I even would have stepped into the debt conversation last night. I would have said that I hate debt and deficit as much as anyone, but that our country was in a crisis and it needed help; that George W. Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama all saw that reality–and there’s not much on which all three of those men agree. I would have acknowledged that debt caused more challenges for the future, and that now that we are on the road to recovery, the debt issue has to be tackled. On that note, I would have been certain to point out that no tax cut (to my knowledge) has ever reduced a deficit. Even when accelerated growth occurs, it is not enough to supplant the lost revenue. But I would have focused on making it known that skyrocketing debt was a function of the crisis and that since the initial bailouts, government spending has grown at only a snail’s pace.

Such a speech would have made clear to the American people that 1) Obama has a record and cares about the issues important to you, 2) Obama has moved in the right direction toward mutually-agreed-upon goals, 3) Obama is not so out of touch that he doesn’t understand the shortcomings of the past three years, and 4) he has substantive plans to make the next four years better than the past three years. If I felt those four things were true, it would be pretty easy to vote to give this man more time. Absent those things–which is the reality of his speech–you have to wonder if maybe he is a bit out of touch (like his opponent). Absent them, if you were on the fence going into the night, you might still vote against his opponent, but you probably won’t vote for your president.

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