If ever there was a metaphor for the sorry state of American politics, it was the stubbornness of the crushed challenger to concede a hopelessly lost election into the wee hours and the subsequent nonchalance of the victor taking his sweet time to get to the podium, while the nation ruefully shook its tired head at the unmitigated arrogance of the political class.
When Mitt Romney finally showed up at the Boston Convention Center at 1 a.m. to deliver his last hurrah, it was characteristically gracious and uninspiring. Good soldier that he is, Romney’s swan song appearance on the national stage was appropriate, workmanlike and brief.
He touched all the necessary bases:
- First, wishing his opponent well in a personal way:
“I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”
- Second, extending the obligatory thanks to his wife, his clearly outmaneuvered campaign staff, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, the new golden boy of a dysfunctional Republican party.
- Third, pleading for the only way out of the nation’s atrophied economic condition, compromise and bipartisanship.
“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. “
This was the key message Romney seized on too late in his campaign to get him over the finish line.
The only moment in his last performance where Romney let his guard down was when he wistfully noted that his wife “would have been a wonderful first lady” and how he so wished, “I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader.”
In the end, Romney’s remarks were more perfunctory than passionate, a tepid end to a toothless campaign; delivered by a generous and decent man, who probably would have made a fine president.
Indeed, full disclosure, I like the other half of America voted for Romney. That the losing candidate received virtually an equal number of popular votes underscored President Obama’s challenge to begin to “heal” a nation that seems irretrievably divided.
That “healing” had to begin with the president’s better late-than-never victory speech. With 56 million Americans voting against him, this speech was clearly not the time for gloating, but rather for making a believable appeal to work with his adversaries and therefore offer some hope to a largely dispirited and dubious nation.
Did Obama succeed in that mission? Not so much.
Indeed, the high point of the talk preceded it, when Michelle Obama and the girls sashayed across the stage to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” as the true believers in the Chicago hall went wild.
When his family exited the stage, the president let his signature rhetoric soar.
“Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.”
Clearly, the president was speaking for posterity—the phrases strong and memorable—but after four years of similar high-flying oratory yielding few, tangible results and little progress, the words seemed more hollow platitudes than call to action.
The president was expansive—as well he should have been—in his admiration for a well-oiled, singularly-focused campaign staff that literally won him an election that was very much in doubt.
He moved onto Michelle Obama and the girls, speaking glowingly about how America loved them and informally about not getting them another dog.
And then after all the personal, self-congratulatory allusions to staff, family, and self—not to mention the earlier playing of the 70s R&B hit, “Mr. Big Stuff,”—Obama derided “the cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests.”
Curious, to say the least.
He moved on to the anecdotal stories that have become his trademark—about the volunteer whose brother was hired at an Obama-saved auto plant and the father of the girl with leukemia, saved by Obamacare. It was all fine and fancy and uplifting; but without much talk about compromise and conciliation and bringing in the half of America who rejected him—in other words, the real problems that afflicted the nation he was just reelected to lead.
Perhaps the most hopeful part of the talk was Obama’s praise for his adversary and his plans to sit down “with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”
Such “sit downs” with his detractors would be the tonic the president needs to make a dent in the laundry list of pressing issues he cited at the close of his speech—”Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” And one other he made no mention of—putting 20 million people back to work.
“Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over,” the president summarized, concluding, correctly, that the entire nation “voted for action, not politics as usual.” But if the nation was looking for some glimpse as to what specific “action” this president would champion, it didn’t find it in this speech. What it got instead at 2 a.m. today was ringing oratory:
“The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”
The true believers ate it up. The 56 million skeptics, on the other hand, weren’t particularly convinced.
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 in September by Palgrave Macmillan. He can be reached at email@example.com.