WHATEVER ONE'S VIEW of Barack Obama, it’s hard to disagree with the New York Times when it calls his party nomination for the presidency, capped off yesterday with an elaborately staged acceptance speech in Denver’s Invesco field, a “remarkable achievement in what has been a remarkable ascendance.” But the trouble with the Obama campaign has always been the gulf between the truly inspiring story of the candidate and the thoroughly conventional substance of his politics, which remains the stuff of left-liberal orthodoxy. For all the pomp and circumstance of Obama’s mile-high moment, that gulf endures.
It is only fair to acknowledge that Obama’s nomination stands as a significant benchmark in American history: it is the first time that a black American has been selected by a major U.S. party to bear its standard for the presidency. If the relentless harping on this point by Democratic operatives is not exactly disinterested, that makes it no less admirable. Just as significant, the nomination is a tribute to the impressive political skills of a man whose name was largely unknown as recently as four years ago. To go from a humbling defeat in a congressional race against Black Panther Bobby Rush in 2000 to clinching the Democratic Party’s nomination just eight years later is a singular political feat.
Both themes were neatly highlighted in the biographical video that preceded Obama’s speech. In it, Obama affectionately recalled his grandfather’s dictum that Americans “can do anything if we put our minds to it.” Echoing his grandfather’s wisdom, Obama affirmed that what the country needs most is to “make sure opportunity is there.” There is no better proof of the truth of that statement than the political success of the man making it.
All the more jarring, then, that this introduction was followed by a speech that dispensed with the do-it-yourself ethos of Obama’s grandfather in favor of a nanny-state liberalism that sees government intervention as the only reliable guarantor of success. True, Obama acknowledged that “government cannot solve all our problems,” and that “we are responsible for ourselves.” But these concessions seemed merely symbolic, as the bulk of his speech counted the realms – the environment, the economy, healthcare, the housing market, education, etc. – where government could expand its reach. Aside from a single remark about parental responsibility, which would be controversial to no one save Rev. Jesse Jackson and the more aggressive peddlers of racial grievance, it was not clear where, if anywhere, a President Obama would be prepared to place limits on government action.
By contrast, in the one area where there is a consensus about government responsibility – the national defense – Obama sounded the least steady. It did not help his case that he became bogged down in contradiction. For instance, he promised to end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” and then to “finish the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” But given that Iraq remains a central battleground in the war against al-Qaeda, and that coalition forces are at last winning that war, Obama’s proposal to withdraw troops is anything but responsible.
Nor did Obama provide any hint that he understood what the war on terror is fundamentally about. Yes, there was a cheap snipe that John McCain, even as he has promised to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, “won’t follow bin Laden to the cave where he lives” (as if the Democratic nominee knows where that might be). But the words “Islam” and “jihad” never featured in the speech, and it is not at all clear that Obama understands their relevance to the conflict he proposes to wage.
Obama’s pledge to “curb Russian aggression” showed a better grasp of geopolitical realities. It is doubtful, however, that it will make much of an impression on Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin lieutenants. After all, how credible is such a threat coming from the same man who has promised to meet even the leaders of terror-sponsoring Iran “without preconditions”?
The more disappointing aspect of Obama’s speech – a speech that in many ways represents his vision for the country – was his repeated derision of individual responsibility. To hear Obama tell it, what is needed is not opportunity but government assistance. It’s hard to imagine that his grandfather, a tough-tempered Kansan who uncomplainingly endured the Great Depression and then served his country in World War II, would admire his grandson’s mocking of the idea that one can “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” as he did yesterday to raucous applause from the Democratic audience. For all his nostalgia about his grandparents, it seems that when it comes to the deeper lessons in life, the Democratic nominee is not in Kansas anymore.
Whether or not Obama gets a post-convention “bounce,” there is no denying that the week was, like the candidate himself, an impressive piece of work. Crucially, however, it was also very much a scripted affair. It’s one thing to win over a crowd of 84,000 adoring Democratic partisans. But as Obama’s own relatives might have reminded him, America is bigger than that.