Obama delivers rhetorical zingers, but was it enough?

The president promises hope, not change in a speech that likely didn’t change the minds of undecided voters.


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Michelle Obama provided the personal insights.

Bill Clinton provided the performance justification.

And Joe Biden provided, well … at least he didn’t mess anything up.

So the challenge for Barack Obama was to provide the specifics as to what he would do, how he would do it, and why his opponents should be denied the opportunity at last night’s Democratic National Convention.

With three days of non-stop positives about the auto industry comeback, financial system bounce back, and Osama bin Laden on-his-back—the stage was set for a gifted orator to drop the hammer on a not-so-gifted challenger, who a week earlier failed to provide the same necessary specifics on his own plan.

Obama didn’t need to convince anyone about his rhetorical delivery skills; this was a moment for content and substance.

The president did well, but not well enough for a knockout.

The what

Obama began promisingly by wading right into the “two fundamentally different visions for the future” that define this election.

His vision, he said, “to restore the middle class,” would be a lot different than the Republicans’ “same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years … Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”

Good line, clear distinction.

Now tell us whatyou’ll do.

He did, sort of.

  • Start rewarding companies that open new plants and train new workers here in the USA. OK
  • Keep investing in alternative energy sources—wind, solar, natural gas but don’t cave to the oil companies. Clear enough.
  • Use military savings to pay down the debt. Good.
  • Recruit 100,00 new science and math teachers; provide two million workers the chance to learn new skills at community colleges, cut tuition costs in half. Uh, yes but …
  • Reform Medicare by reducing the cost of health care. Huh?

The list of “what’s” wasn’t bad—similar to Romney’s list a week earlier. But Obama, like Romney, offered few specifics as to “how” he would achieve what he promised.

The how

Like his challenger’s speech a week earlier, the president failed to answer how his list might be organized or more important, paid for.

He provided not a glimpse of how those “rewards for new U.S. plants” might be structured, or how much the saved military money might reduce the deficit, or how, specifically, he would accomplish reduced health care costs. Rather than offering nourishing specifics, he served up empty rhetoric.

  • “We can gut education, or we can decide that in the USA, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school.”
  • “I refuse to ask students to pay more for college or kick children out of Head Start programs, or eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor, elderly, or disabled—all so those with the most can pay less.”
  • “We will keep the promise of Social Security by taking the responsible steps to strengthen it—not by turning it over to Wall Street.”

To the true believers in the hall, this may have sounded inspirational, but to undecided voters, it just sounded like more of the same old, same old.

The why

The strongest part of the speech was Obama’s rationale and rhetoric on why his opponents shouldn’t be elected. Here, the sitting president took direct aim at the missteps of his older, wealthier, less experienced adversary—firing a stream of staccato, rhetorical zingers.

  • “You don’t call Russia our number one enemy—and not Al Qaeda—unless you’re stuck in a Cold War time warp.”
  • “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
  • “If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and ‘borrow money from your parents.'”

Brutal? Clearly. Below-the-belt. A little. But effective? You bet.

To close, Obama returned once again to the familiar harbor of “hope.”

“I have never been more hopeful about America,” he said, and he cited several examples of heroic Americans he’d experienced. “They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a ‘future filled with hope.'”

In the bosom of the nation’s undisputed Orator-in-Chief, evidently “hope” still springs eternal; as long, that is, as the voters don’t also ask for “change.”

Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the co-author of “Rethinking Reputation,” published this month by Palgrave Macmillan. He can be reached at yusake@aol.com.

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