To put President Obama’s unremarkable speech last night to the Democratic National Convention in full context, you have to pair it with this morning’s jobs report, which fell short of analysts’ expectations. Here’s how the Wall Street Journal put it:
U.S. job growth slowed in August, a sign of a slack recovery that could slow any postconvention momentum for President Barack Obama and spur the Federal Reserve to take further steps in an effort to stimulate the economy.
U.S. payrolls increased by a seasonally adjusted 96,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department said Friday. The politically important unemployment rate, obtained by a separate survey of U.S. households, fell to 8.1% from 8.3%, mainly because of more people dropping out of the work force.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires expected a gain of 125,000 in payrolls and an 8.3% jobless rate.
That growth is below this year’s monthly average (139,000), which is below last year’s monthly average (153,000). The only thing that keeps this report from being an outright disaster for the president is that a number of people will look at the lower headline unemployment rate and not understand that it fell chiefly because — three years into the “recovery” — a whole lot of people gave up looking for work and thus aren’t included in the figure.
And yet Obama, who may or may not have known last night what today’s jobs figures would be, gave a speech not full of new ideas for the next four years but full of exhortations to stay the course. A course, of course, that a large majority of Americans deem to be in the wrong direction.
It was striking, actually, how much Obama’s speech sounded like so many of his other speeches from the past four years. Just keep spending more, especially on items like (crony-capitalist) alternative energy; raise taxes on the rich; and all shall be well. On policy, it was like a greatest hits album — by the likes of Blind Melon or Marcy Playground. Even the rhetoric was weighed down by the sense we’ve heard it all before.
Here we had the World’s Greatest Orator Ever giving a speech that, if all goes well for the Democrats, will be less remembered than the one Bill Clinton gave the night before. Clinton’s speech was mostly a barn-burner, even if it was too long by about 15 minutes and bogged down in the middle as he wonkily tried to convince the public — and at times, it seemed, himself — that the Obama presidency has been a success. And even if it included some damn-with-faint-praise lines, such as the one where he said “no president, not me … could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years” (my emphasis). I don’t know about you, but that came across my TV set with an understood “even” — as in, “I know y’all think I could have done better, but even I couldn’t have done this job. So you can’t blame little ol’ Barack for not getting ‘er done.”
Message: Are you better off than four years ago? No? Well, you never were going to be! Ouch.
And yet, Obama’s speech was so flat that Democrats have to consider it preferable for voters to remember lines like that one from Clinton’s speech. It was so blah, in fact, that both conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said on Fox News last night that Vice President Joe Biden’s speech was better.
Maybe the Mayans were right.
As far as crowing about achievements, there were a few oblique references to Obamacare and the auto bailouts. And the trade agreements he’s signed, all of which were negotiated by George Bush. A labor union-supported Democrat pledging to push for more trade agreements, when he hasn’t even negotiated any in his first term? It’s come to this.
There wasn’t a whole lot else of note. The most concrete accomplishments he pointed out had to do with foreign policy: ending the war in Iraq (on Bush’s previously agreed timeline) and continuing to fight Bush’s war on terror, albeit by another name. Oh, and killing Osama bin Laden. Boy, did Obama and Biden spike that football last night.
One interesting side note is how much time Obama spent talking about our soldiers overseas. Much was made of the fact Mitt Romney didn’t mention them in his speech last week — although he did make references to SEAL Team Six and to strengthening our military — and the Obama campaign clearly thought there were some points to be scored in being much more explicit in talking about the troops. Maybe so.
But in laying out his agenda for Jan. 21, 2013, onward, Obama mostly framed his existing policies as a contrast to what Romney would do. For instance: “I refuse to ask middle class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut.” Never mind that Romney hasn’t proposed ending those tax credits, either; that was the implication. And things like that were about all he had.
If “Change” in 2008 amounted to “I’m not George Bush,” then “Change” in 2012 seems to mean “I won’t be Mitt Romney.”
The good news for Obama is that not a lot of votes are likely to have shifted due to either convention. If I had to give an edge to one, I would give a very slight edge to Romney simply because the RNC did a better job of revealing his softer, more personal side than the DNC did of convincing us there will be new ideas for the next four years coming from Obama. But that just as well could have been neutralized by greater enthusiasm for Obama among his base, which clearly was the target audience all week.
No, this close race will probably boil down to one of three things: a big mistake by one man or the other; an external event that changes the dynamic of the race (I’m thinking about Lehman Bros. in 2008, and I’m looking at you, Israel); or the head-to-head comparison we’ll get in the debates. We’ve got just under two months to go.
– By Kyle Wingfield