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:
But there were lessons we had to learn about life. John Kennedy discovered poverty when he campaigned in West Virginia; there were children who had no milk. And young Teddy Roosevelt met the new America when he roamed the immigrant streets of New York. And I learned a few things about life in a place called Texas . . . .
[W]e moved to west Texas 40 years ago, 40 years ago this year. And the War was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own. And those were exciting days. We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, then started my own.
In time we had six children. Moved from the shotgun, to a duplex apartment, to a house. And lived the dream — high-school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue.
People don’t see their experience as symbolic of an era — but of course we were. And so was everyone else who was taking a chance and pushing into unknown territory with kids and a dog and a car. But the big thing I learned is the satisfaction of creating jobs, which meant creating opportunity, which meant happy families, who in turn could do more to help others and enhance their own lives. I learned that the good done by a single good job can be felt in ways you can’t imagine.
It’s a passage full of everyday American touchstones. It soars because the ideas are presented concretely and cinematically, not abstractly. It focuses on the “we,” rather than the “I.”
Next week, when Obama delivers his speech on the 45th anniversary of the memorable “I Have a Dream” address, he may be tempted to present himself as a kind of heir to Martin Luther King. He shouldn’t. The times are different and, more important, Obama’s task is different. King could uplift and challenge a nation without worrying about how to get a majority to vote for him two months later.
Obama’s campaign may have trouble achieving lift-off without a compelling narrative. This is his greatest opportunity to present one. And that means more Bush, less King.
To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blog/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.