Barack Obama didn’t soar above the clouds Thursday night. His acceptance speech wasn’t the magic carpet ride he offered as a candidate in 2008.
Instead, it was an address that lived in the real world of limitations and frustrations, one less about hyping hope that acknowledging disappointment.
Obama’s central thrust was an entreaty for voters to stay the course, even though economic progress had been plodding, for middle class voters to keep faith with an incumbent plugging away on their behalf rather than taking a flier on Republican rivals who promised better results without saying how they would be achieved.
It wasn’t until the end of his address that Obama really reached for any oratorical heights, and when he did, it was to beseech Americans to stick with him despite their doubts.
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now,” Obama said. “Yes, our path is harder – but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.”
That echoed a call for patience that began his address.
“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have,” he said. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”
Obama did, of course, remind viewers of his accomplishment, prominent among them saving the automobile industry and authorizing the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He talked of ending the Iraq War, of offering more financial help for college students, and of helping raise standards in education, and took some credit for the increase in manufacturing jobs.
What he didn’t do was outline a clear or compelling way forward. There, his speech shared the failing of Romney’s speech last week in Tampa.
Instead, much of what the president talked about was what he was against. That is, the Romney-Ryan plans. He drew a hard line, and a sharp distinction, on tax cuts. Romney, he said, would cut taxes for higher earners at the expense of programs that help the middle class – a charge that’s basically true -- while he would ask upper earners to pay at the higher Clinton-era rates. He also pledged not to turn Medicare into a voucher, but said little realistic about paring back that program, something fiscal experts agree will eventually have to be done.
But he did strike an import chord, and a common bond, on values, talking of citizenship, of shared obligations to one another and to future generations.
This wasn’t the speech of the idealist of 2008. Instead, it was a talk given by a president tough times have turned into a determined realist. It certainly wasn’t riveting. And yet, it did fit the temper of the times – and lay the foundation for the gritty political slugfest to come.