Looking at Obama’s Speech

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John McCain’s surprise selection of Sarah Palin did its work. The coverage of Palin knocked Barack Obama’s convention speech right out of the news cycle. That’s a shame because 38 million people watched Obama’s speech — an event that big (more people watched Obama than watched the Olympic opening ceremonies this year) deserves more than a passing mention.

I thought the speech was excellent. I don’t agree with Obama’s reliance on the federal government to solve all our problems and, despite his supporters’ efforts to make his lack of experience a non-issue, I still worry that he’s too green for the job. But I thought he finally delivered a speech that didn’t wantonly substitute soaring rhetoric for common, specific language. He talked like he was involved in a conversation and not like he was in a pulpit. He’ll have to keep that up if he wants to win over new supporters rather than just exciting his current ones.

Content-wise, I liked that he made specific reference, more than once, to American exceptionalism. Now, a lot of liberals get ill at the thought that America might in fact have values and culture superior to other values and cultures (the world is simpler if you never have to make judgments). But Obama said this:

[I]t is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance.

That may not mean anything specifically, but it tells me Obama thinks we, as a nation, have unique and powerfully positive qualities. Not every liberal believes that anymore.

I also liked that he didn’t shy away from talking about the very real threats we face. Not only did he specifically reference 9/11, he committed to continuing the fight against terrorism and even turned the security issue against John McCain by noting the Arizona senator’s tepid reactions to the growing dangers in Afghanistan. Then, Obama gave this doozy of a line.

You know, John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won’t even follow him to the cave where he lives.

Unfair, sure. But a good line. He followed that up by evoking the legacies of FDR and JFK and chastising anyone who says Democrats won’t defend this nation. We’ve come a long way from John Kerry just assuming we’d trust him on security issues, haven’t we? I still have my doubts about Obama’s judgment on military issues (he really doesn’t think the surge had a positive effect?!?) but I’m glad to hear him facing the issue head-on.

Finally, if there is such a thing as “red meat” to throw to centrists, he threw me some good stuff when he said:

What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

The — the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.

You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

In that passage, Obama reaffirmed the centrist instincts he showed years ago but which he almost never acknowledged during his primary run. He may yet prove to have the wisdom to see where the right and the left are being too stubborn and extreme.

O.k. Good speech. I liked a lot of it. Here’s what I really didn’t like: He’s apparently going to provide more affordable health care, better education, more investment in green energy and more help for the out-of-work while lowering the taxes of 95% of Americans and on small businesses. Sure you are, Barack.

We don’t need to run up more debt for our nation. What I’ll be looking to hear from Obama in the next few months is how he’ll do what he says he’ll do. What will he give up first, his programs or his tax breaks? Something will have to give.

Obama hasn’t won me over but he’s given me enough reason to keep listening. Let’s see how McCain can do this week.