Obama's Speech Underwhelms—and That's a Good Thing

At least we all got to bed on time. I couldn’t have handled another speech time-overrun like the one Bill Clinton gave us Wednesday night. Clinton’s speech, too long by 30 minutes, reminded me of those exhausting nights out with the friend who keeps ordering more beer—full of fun, but you pay for it the next morning.

After Obama’s speech, I woke up clear-headed and refreshed, like I’d spent last night with the disciplined friend who’s always thinking of the next day and prefers to take in a movie and get home at a reasonable hour.

Consider costs and rewards to both styles of speech—with Clinton’s, you suffer the next day, but you can’t get his folksy twang and point-emphasizing thumb out of your head. With Obama, you feel rested, but the words and mannerisms don’t reverberate into lunchtime. Pundits immediately criticized that sober quality of Obama’s speech.

Four years ago, Obama was often accused of deploying nothing more than fancy words and soaring rhetoric. His speeches, which took us to great peaks, were also filled with vast overpromises, especially for someone so untested by Washington. And those critics were right—candidate Obama did overstate his ability to bring about true change. That’s not to say he hasn’t done great things—not least of all saving the country from economic depression and passing universal health care. But a lot of what he promised last time around turned out not to be feasible, and last night, with that slower, more cautious speech, he implicitly and explicitly owned up to that.

In the most memorable moment, quoting Lincoln, Obama said, “While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’” (One might contrast this honest reflection with George W. Bush’s statement that he couldn’t think of any mistake he’d ever made.)

And that was what was most interesting about the president’s speech—the way it revealed how far he’s traveled in four short years, how much the process of governing in such divided, difficult times has humbled him. Like the graying hair at his temples, his oratory bore the patina of workaday reality, of wisdom gained from genuine struggle. It was in his underpromise that he demonstrated how wise he’s become.

The night before, during Bubba’s folksy, firey speech, my Twitter feed lit up with breathless testimonials of abject love that verged on the hilariously obscene: “Bite the lip, Bill, bite the lip!” one wrote. Another: “I love when Bill tells me to listen.” Still another: “This is like porn for Democrats.” And it was.

Last night, there were no such salivating tweets. In fact, Twitter seemed to go eerily quiet, as if we were all hanging onto each careful word. Obama wasn’t trying to charm us. On Wednesday night, with Clinton, we’d gotten our jollies. Last night, with Obama, we came back down to Earth.