By David P. Gushee
Following up on last week’s column analyzing Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, here’s a parallel analysis of last night’s speech by President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
— Tone and body language: Obama came across as cool, confident and in control of the room. He smiled relatively little and did not often attempt to be funny or ironic. There was a note of having been chastened by the pressures and difficulties of the office, and a measure of disgust at the silliness and stupidity of politics. With Obama, one senses a kind of out-of-body distance between the role he is performing and the inner self watching himself play that role.
— On “Obama:” I sensed an effort both to deal with deflated hopes and to direct attention away from “Obama” as symbol to “we the people” or “we the party.” Toward the end of the speech he said that the last election was “not about me” but instead about “you.” “You” passed healthcare reform, enhanced access to education, ended discrimination against gay soldiers, ended deportations of young immigrants. He seemed to want to shift the subject to his administration’s policies, supposedly reflecting “American values,” rather than himself.
— On Romney: Obama offered remarkably little attention to his opponent. The longest sustained focus on Mitt Romney came during the section on foreign policy, and there Obama was strikingly disdainful and even dismissive. He described both his adversaries as “new to foreign policy,” and suggested they would bring a “blustering and blundering” foreign policy that was stuck in a “Cold War mind warp.” Otherwise, he simply bundled the Romney/Ryan ticket into “30 years” of Republican economic prescriptions, which (he said) always come back to more tax cuts and fewer regulations.
I had read that Obama was privately disdainful of Romney’s readiness for the presidency. Time will tell if he is underestimating his opponent, always a dangerous thing to do, especially around debate time.
— On policy: Obama’s speech was more detailed about policy than was Mitt Romney’s. He claimed credit for strengthening U.S. manufacturing and saving the auto industry, enhancing the nation’s energy independence and efficiency, improving the quality of K-12 education and access to higher education, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, strengthening U.S. alliances and looking after our troops — and promised more of the same.
His section on government fiscal problems could speak more to what he couldn’t do (cut the deficit by $4 trillion, return tax rates to those of the productive Clinton years) than with what he has done. Since 2010 the Republican Congress has blocked most of what he has tried to accomplish.
— On social issues: Like Romney, Obama slipped in brief mention of his party’s preferred social issue vision. He made a brief and unequivocal allusion to his support for abortion rights, as well as for gay marriage. But he did so without using either the word “abortion” or “gay,” which tracked with the rhetorical pattern of every other Democratic speaker that I heard or read about. Clearly this was intentional.
— On religion: Obama worked a few references to religion into his speech: “endowed by their Creator” language from the Declaration of Independence, an allusion to Abraham Lincoln speaking of having been driven to his knees by the pressures of office, “ours is a future filled with hope” identified as “words of scripture” (reference, please?), and a peroration at the end about Providence guiding and God blessing these United States of America.
Nightly invocations and a significant speech from Sister Simone Campbell of the “nuns on the bus” signified the Democrats’ continued efforts to avoid being seen as the “secular party” but also to claim a share of at least the progressive wing of American religion.
— On citizenship: Obama sought to draw a contrast between a shared-citizenship vision over against what he presented as a Republican individualism that works well only if you start off with advantages. Government is a force for the collective good, in this view, though certainly not the only force. It is an arbiter of fairness, a check on economic power and a means by which everyone gains access to opportunity.
— On true believers: It was fascinating to watch the starry-eyed, sometimes weepy conventioneers, in both parties, at both conventions. On the one hand it is inspiring to see that there are people in our country who still believe in our political system, our parties and our leaders. On the other hand, these respective true believers find each other incomprehensible, and a large number of the rest of us have profound doubts about the entire political system, including our quasi-official two parties, as it has evolved in recent decades.
I could wish that those pledged to Christ as Lord could function at a critical distance from either party. Instead, at least those most visible at these conventions seemed to have fully embraced Democratic Christianity or Republican Christianity, left Christianity or right Christianity. I don’t think this does either the church or the nation much good.