OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT…Okay, maybe that’s a little premature, but standing there listening to the roar of the crowd (only Clinton has received a louder ovation at this convention) after Obama brought down the house with his keynote address, with “Obama” signs blanketing the hall, I said to myself, “You’re looking at our first black president.” Along with many of my colleagues I had wondered whether Obama could possibly live up to the hope — it’s impossible to overemphasize the extent to which Democratic Party leaders have placed their dreams of the future on his shoulders — and to the hype — I’ve lost track of the number of times he has popped up on the network dais next to us for interviews with BrianWilliamsCandyCrowleyChrisWallace.
But, people? He rocked.
It didn’t hurt that practically every speaker before and after him on Tuesday evening flopped. And that’s not just my subjective opinion. With the exception of Howard Dean — who received an incredibly warm welcome from the crowd, including the most evidence so far of genuine feeling, homemade signs, etc. — no one else captured the attention of the usually polite and attentive delegate audience. It was downright embarrassing at some points. Ted Kennedy entered the hall to a raucous reception and by the time he concluded his speech, the Kennedy clan only had time for a painfully brief wave at the crowd before the applause died completely. The only applause line in Tom Daschle’s speech that actually achieved the desired effect was when he referred to his position as “Majority Leader” in the next Senate. (And while I know everyone is complaining about the music selection, who selected “Mr. Big Stuff…oooh, oooh…Who do you think you are?” as Daschle’s song? Was that a joke?) All order was lost by the time Christie Vilsack took the stage and sped through her speech to an audience that was mostly ignoring her.
So by the time Obama appeared, the crowd was hungry for an eloquent, confident address. In order to deliver a broader appeal on behalf of Kerry, Obama had to limit the best part of his stump speech to a single paragraph. But even that bit — about how the people he meets “don?t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. ” — went over well. His riff about race is reportedly even better, but was also sacrificed in the interest of a streamlined speech.
The first early roar during the speech rose over the line, “If there?s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.” The threat to civil liberties — embodied in the Patriot Act — is not only a good energizing issue for Democratic voters, but it taps anger and suspicion among conservatives and swing voters as well. It’s also important to note that the line came during the “We are all one people” theme of Obama’s speech. That matches closely with Clinton’s “more perfect union” theme of Monday night. It’s telling that while conventions are usually all about rallying the base, Democrats this year are using the convention to appeal to all Americans. They know their base is with them. They’re making an argument that goes beyond politics by setting up a crucial distinction between the parties — you can choose unity or you can choose division.
Obama really captured the crowd with the blue state/red state litany. “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don?t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States.” Reading it again this morning, I like the speech even more than I did last night. It was beautifully crafted and couldn’t have been better delivered. If this is the new voice of the Democratic Party, we’re in for a fun ride.
UPDATE: A Daschle staffer writes in to correct me on my identification of Daschle’s convention theme music. It was not, as I mistakenly thought, “Mr. Big Stuff” but instead the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself.” I have to agree with Tapped’s Ayelish McGarvey — there is good soul music out there; use some of it.