Barack Obama's convention speech started dull — which turned out to be a smart move
President Obama did things in his speech Thursday that most speakers try to never do: He started off boring and tried to deflect attention from himself.
It worked out quite well for him.
Is it giving him too much credit to suggest that he deliberately started dull before making a sharp rhetorical turn at the end of his acceptance speech for the Democratic Presidential nomination? I don't think so.
There are two main knocks on Obama: That he knows how to make big speeches but is in over his head — that's Republicans' typical criticism of the president — or, more harshly, that he's some kind of egotistical demagogue. (While not suggesting that, a New York Times story Monday did offer a somewhat scary rundown of how much he wants to be the best at everything he does.)
Obama, who rose to prominence on his oratorical skills, would have run a risk by sweeping into the Democratic National Convention with another big speech. So he made a small one. And one that was boring, for its first two-thirds or so.
Instead of selling big dreams of which much of the country is now suspicious, he tried to sell basic, boring, grown-up competence. He noted that he had more grey hair than he did when he debuted on the national stage in 2004. In a heavily tweeted comment, he said, "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president."
There were a few brave lines amid all the ho-hum competence — or rather, commonsensical lines that some politicans are too cowardly to say. These included his unwillingness to blame immigrants or gays for the country's trouble, and his statement that "climate change is not a hoax."
And he served up some red meat by saying Republicans' "prescription" for the economy never changed: "Try two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning." He also dinged Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on foreign policy, with the loaded observation, "My opponent and his running mate are… new to foreign policy," while pointing out Romney's gaffe in London where the candidate criticized England's Olympic organizational skills.
But for the most part, the speech was a dry recitation of the same points Bill Clinton made more colorfully the night before. He won cheers for calling back Clinton's contention that simple arithmetic shows that the Romney-Ryan budget doesn't add up.
And then, he turned on the Obama.
But in a new, fresh way.
Republicans have long dinged him for seeming more like a celebrity than a politician — a charge he has too often fed into. (I cringed at the thought of celebrities like Scarlett Johannson speaking at the DNC Thursday, but she turned out to be fine.)
At the point when he could have made the speech about what he has accomplished — feeding into the our worst me-me-me fears about what makes him tick — he took a surprising turn.
He replaced "Yes we can" with "You did that."
The president has caught hell for his out-of-context "You didn't built that" line. It plays into the worst possible image of him, as someone who thinks only the government, with him at the helm, can accomplish big things.
So he ended his speech by telling voters everything they have accomplished, taking himself out of the process.
You did that, he said. You made that possible. You are the reason.
He even credited voters for the health legislation commonly called Obamacare.
He hoped voters would make the connection that they did that by voting for him. But he didn't say it. And that was a smart, humble gesture that made his campaign seem bigger than him.
And that needed to happen.
Instead of trying to inspire his audience, he talked about what inspires him, from a homeless girl who won science prizes to a plant owner who wouldn't lay off workers to an autoworker who won the lottery and still went to work — but bought flags for everyone in his town. He talked about a wounded soldier, bicycling on a new leg.
He tried to move himself into the background and to make his campaign about us rather than him. To end the focus on whether he's in over his head, or his head is too big, and to say, basically, that he can't do anything without the American voter.
Last week, Romney did a good job of connecting with those voters in his acceptance speech, and presenting himself as a fundamentally nice man who was as disappointed as anyone else in Obama's failures.
Thursday, Obama suggested they weren't his failures at all. Not only because they weren't failures — but because they weren't his.