Right now, everyone is focused on Barack Obama’s vice-presidential choice. But historically, convention acceptance speeches matter even more. When Obama gives his acceptance speech next Thursday night, it will offer him his best chance to recast his candidacy before November. Next to the debates, these speeches make for the campaign’s most decisive moments. They are the time when the voters first judge a candidate as a potential president. And, throughout the years, they have been the time when various nominees — from FDR to Ronald Reagan, and beyond — have set out the themes that have defined their candidacies, and even their presidencies.
In his speech, Obama really has one task: he has to make himself part of the great American story, so as to convince the average voter that he’s “one of us.”
So far, Obama has failed to construct much of a narrative to tie himself to the working-class voters who will decide the election. It’s not really a question of race, but of background and novelty. Here is this eloquent candidate who has seemingly appeared from nowhere with little experience. And, as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan has pointed out, he has few traditional geographical or family roots. Obama has a different kind of name and little personal experience with institutions Americans know well, such as the military or sports. The jobs he brags about — like being a community organizer — are unfamiliar and even alienating to many Americans.
Yes, Obama has written a compelling autobiography, Dreams from My Father, which some have compared favorably to James Baldwin’s. But few are going to read it, and Baldwin could never have gotten elected president, to put it mildly.
Without a familiar narrative, Obama risks coming across as diffident — even an outsider — and his proposals for change will be received as if delivered by a foreigner. (That’s why going to Europe this past month may have actually hurt his image.) The task facing Obama may appear to be easy to define, but it will be difficult to pull off, because the soaring rhetoric he’s used so far won’t work for this mission — and could even be counter-productive. Speaking in a stadium full of 75,000 screaming partisans won’t help him either, since he’s trying to reach the souls of those sitting quietly in living rooms across the country.
Less “I” — more “we”
All good candidates look to the past for ideas on how to put together memorable rhetoric. When JFK called his program “the New Frontier,” it was a terrific way of connecting his ideas with traditional Americana. Obama, however, doesn’t need a slogan; he needs a story. The recommendation here is that he study the speech that — believe it or not — George H. W. Bush gave when accepting the GOP nomination in 1988.
Bush faced a problem analogous to Obama’s. As he went to the convention, many voters perceived him as nothing more than a removed, upper-class patrician who had been handed everything important in life without having to work for it. Who could relate to that?
In that single speech, Bush presented a different narrative of his life — with the help of Noonan, chief speechwriter for his ’88 campaign. It’s worth quoting at length. “Yes, my parents were prosperous; and their children sure were lucky,” Bush began. He went on: