Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night was less of an emphatic statement of purpose than a direct challenge to President Obama. In a low-key, neighborly way, he portrayed Obama as a disappointing leader who squandered the goodwill of the American people. In doing so, Romney served the ball cleanly into Obama’s court. Next week, Obama will have a chance to return the volley. He would do well to offer a clear, persuasive game plan for the future.
But Romney, it seemed, missed a chance to articulate a fully convincing game plan of his own. Instead, he repeated some of the piecemeal promises he’s made earlier in the campaign: expanded oil and gas drilling, a repeal of Obama’s health plan, a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear program, and a general commitment to lower taxes and less government regulation. Some of these ideas are workable; others, such as his suggestion that eliminating Obama’s health plan would drive down premiums, seem more a step backward than forward. But they don’t amount to the compelling plan for American renewal that Romney promises.
Instead, the speech was designed to bolster Romney’s personal image, showcasing his strong commitment to his family, his personal diligence, and his generosity to his church and community. Many people in Massachusetts have already seen this side of Romney, and can attest to his basic decency. But a bruising primary campaign, including attacks by his GOP rivals on his Bain Capital business career that were later amplified by the Obama campaign, damaged Romney’s reputation in the eyes of many voters. Last night, he took some steps toward restoring his personal honor and appeal.
Romney wisely avoided many of the overblown charges that were featured in vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech a night earlier — claims that Obama was responsible for factory closings, “cronyism,” and corporate welfare. Instead, he delivered to Obama a more prosaic version of Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Jimmy Carter back in 1980 — to explain why people are or aren’t better off because of his presidency.
That puts a lot of pressure on Obama, but also hands him an opportunity. This campaign was always destined to be a referendum on the president’s leadership, and Romney, last night, effectively called on Obama to explain himself. In his own speech next week, Obama needs to answer the bill of particulars that Romney delivered on Thursday night.