Opinion Brief

Obama's 'dull and pedestrian' convention speech: Why did he play it safe?

After boffo DNC speeches from Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, the president's much-hyped address left many viewers feeling rather underwhelmed

The expectations for President Obama's big acceptance address at the Democratic National Convention were pretty high. Obama is, after all, known to give a good speech, and he followed blockbuster performances from First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton on the convention's first two nights. But instead of lofty promises and loftier rhetoric, Obama soberly acknowledged that the economic recovery was slow, while earnestly mounting an argument that his policies are working, and will be better for America's future than those proposed by opponent Mitt Romney. (Watch highlights below.) Many commentators were underwhelmed. "This speech felt very safe to me," tweeted The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. "It's the speech you give when you think you're winning." Did Obama play it too safe and miss a prime chance to bury Romney?

This weak speech proves Obama is getting cocky: "Let's be blunt: Barack Obama gave a dull and pedestrian speech," the rhetorical equivalent of "running out the clock" in a football game, says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. He "clearly thinks he's ahead," and felt no need to go big with bold new ideas and lots of specifics, like Clinton did. That's a "horrible missed opportunity." With an unprecedented onslaught of the GOP's negative TV ads set to overwhelm the airwaves, Obama has to play offense. When football teams play it safe to protect slim leads, "it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose."
"Obama: A pedestrian and overconfident speech"

Clearly, the presidency has taken a toll on Obama: Many people wanted to see the "easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm" of vintage 2008 Obama, says Garance Franke-Ruta at The Atlantic. Well, he "will never be that man again." The president that's facing the voters now has had a front-row seat for too much war, economic pain, and "endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans." This grayer and wiser Obama gave a solid speech, but he "did not bring the noise. He brought himself. Not a candidate, but a president — for good and for ill."
"Behind the enthusiasm gap, a war-weary Obama?"

In the end, playing it safe may have been smart: Obama wasn't resting on his laurels, he was promising "a return to normalcy," says The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. That may sound bland, but between the 9/11 attacks, the financial meltdown, and 8.3 percent unemployment, "this has not been a normal time." Obama's list of modest, "achievable goals" was "pitched to a country exhausted of politics and crises and fighting." Voters already like Obama better than Romney; now he wants them to "feel safer with the Democrat they know than the Republican they don't."
"President Obama's agenda: A return to political normalcy"

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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