Stu Bykofsky: Obama's speech a hit, not a home run

The packed house at Time Warner Cable Arena certainly loved President Obama's speech.
The packed house at Time Warner Cable Arena certainly loved President Obama's speech. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 07, 2012

WHEN a presidential candidate is giving an acceptance speech, home viewers should ignore the delegates' delirious response, particularly in the case of an incumbent who had no primary challengers.

That every delegate adores Barack Obama and will cheer his every word is no more surprising than the massive balloon drop (which was canceled due to the late change of venue) at the conclusion of his speech.

The delegates in the hall are bought and paid for (enslaved, Joe Biden might say) and are no more objective than parents at their daughter's first ballet recital.

While some of President Obama's marginal support has peeled away, the delegates in Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena are the core of his corps. They'd dance in the aisles if he addressed them with his pants on backward.

For the past 3 1/2 years, Obama has been playing not just in the big leagues, but in the biggest league. He's been on the global stage, making speeches everywhere from Washington to Cairo. His speech writers are more seasoned than Mitt Romney's, more deft at turning a phrase, in the same way that Ronald Reagan's Peggy Noonan could write rings around the hapless crew writing for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

As a percentage of the whole, few Americans ever heard Romney speak before last Thursday, and the majority still haven't. Because he's president, Obama's every utterance has been recorded and broadcast for years. Love him or hate him, most of us know how eloquent and dramatic he can be.

Obama is mocked by the right as a onetime community organizer, but how does an organizer organize? By giving speeches, by talking with people, and that is in Obama's DNA. He's as comfortable in front of a crowd as Romney is in a boardroom.

The national spotlight fell on Obama for the first time at the 2004 Democratic convention where, as the keynote speaker, he electrified the crowd and amazed the TV audience with his stirring prose and phrasing. "Who is that guy?" many Americans (including me) were thinking. "Why isn't he running?"

And then he did.

In the process of a bruising 2008 primary fight, and then being president, Obama has given many memorable speeches, such as his 2008 speech about race in Philadelphia, his 2008 speech in Berlin, his acceptance speech.

All of which is to say that the bar was set high for Obama. In 2008, his disciples regarded him as a savior, but last night he took the stage as an embattled incumbent politician rather than a transformational figure. He not only had to top Mitt Romney's speech (or Clint Eastwood's), he had to top what preceded him at the convention - Bill Clinton, and especially wife, Michelle.

Finally, and most difficult, he had to top his own personal best.

Former presidential speech writer Craig Smith, professor of communication studies at California State University at Long Beach, says the goal of an acceptance speech is to be the most memorable event at the convention. Did Obama succeed?

In a serious but not somber blue suit and blue striped tie, he presented his theme - "Two different paths for America."

He didn't have to do much biography - Michelle and Joe Biden had done that, so he focused on attacking Republicans, proclaiming his record and laying out his vision, an oft-heard motif of fair play and a level playing field. With a little more humility than in the past, he offered a difficult road ahead for Americans, but promised arrival at "a better place."

For political junkies, there wasn't a lot that was new, but the repetition of one phrase was - choosing a path. A lesser, but familiar theme was "hope."

He was more the professor than the preacher, but he connected with the audience in the hall. At home? Perhaps less so (but no doubt it sent a thrill up Chris Matthews' leg).

No single phrase sparkled like a diamond and stuck in the mind like a burr. Biden's "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive" was tough to top.

In the litmus test of most memorable, I think B. Obama finished second to M. Obama and J. Biden.


Contact Stu Bykofsky at stubyko@phillynews.com or 215-854-5977. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.

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