Listen closely to the 46-minute address, however, and you heard two speeches crushed somewhat jarringly together.
The first half, one suspects, was the speech that Obama felt he had to give: a traditional partisan appeal that, for all his sonorous cadences, read like it could have been stitched together randomly from speeches delivered on any given day from rank-and-file Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives.
There were denuciations of outsourced manufacturing jobs and promises to save Security Security and frequent baiting of John McCain for being the candidate of the rich and a weakling against Osama bin Laden.
The second half sounded like the speech Obama wanted to give: a plea for a new brand of politics, one in which politicians don’t attack each other’s motives or character, and Washington calls a ceasefire in such drearily familiar fights as abortion and gun control.
Obama did not acknowledge the two halves of his address—the partisan top and the post-partisan close—much less try to reconcile them. Blurring inconsistencies under clouds of polished language is the right of any politician. What’s more, a convention acceptance speech is not the time for a seminar.
Even so, it was notable that Obama’s speech offered countless rhetorical stanzas but not much in the way of a genuine argument aimed at convincing people who are not already enthusiasts, or for whom the charge that McCain would represent four more years of George W. Bush does not by itself close the deal.
He chided McCain for being a slave to his party’s orthodoxy. But Obama did not find occasion to challenge any Democratic orthodoxies, or highlight places where he breaks from his party’s interest groups.
Indeed, he made almost no effort to place himself in any particular spot on the ideological spectrum. The result was to leave a default impression that he is a standard post-Clinton Democrat—wary of big business and the ill effects of globalization and free trade, motivated most intensely by antipathy to Bush and the Iraq War.
The speech included some moments of plain hypocrisy—nothing out of bounds by the standards of normal campaigning but out of step with his pleas for a more unifying and less manipulative style of politics.
Obama said “what I will not do is suggest that the senator takes his positions for political purposes,” because “the times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook.”
Over the course of this year Obama and other Democrats have suggested frequently that McCain abandoned his once independent positions in order to appease conservatives in his race for the Republican nomination.
He also invoked most of his party’s favorite gotcha moments against McCain. The thrusts were well-turned and mostly above-the-belt (though sometimes a bit distorted). But there is nothing more familiar than making politicians pay for their gaffes. This is precisely the same practice that Obama denounced last spring as old politics when it was used against him when he slipped by saying poor white voters “cling” to guns and religion because of job losses.
Obama accused McCain of considering everyone under $5 million as middle class – a reference to a clumsy comment McCain recently made at a forum. He said McCain wants to privatize Social Security, which is somewhat misleading. McCain has supported allowing workers to put a small percentage of their Social Security taxes in private savings accounts – but not to privatize the program.
He said McCain “has said no to higher fuel-effciency standards for cars, no to investment in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels." That’s not entirely true: McCain has been supportive of measures in all of these areas though he has also voted against many Democratic versions of these plans.
The speech was more programmatic and less biographical than many of Obama's most celebrated speeches. Notably, he touched only glancingly on his history making status as the first African-American nominee.
The speech also highlighted a contrast between Obama and the last Democrat to win the presidency.
Even on big occasions like acceptance speeches or State of the Union addresses, Bill Clinton usually aimed for a conversational tone. More often than not, he also liked to pretend he was grappling genuinely with the other side’s honest positions, if only to show why they were wrong.
Obama strives for a more elevated and elegant tone in his language. But his basic case is more straightforward denunciation. “For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy — give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” Obama said of McCain.
This may not go far toward creating a new brand of politics, but it will please many of the Democratic elected officials here. All week, many of Obama’s colleagues in interviews said his most important job was to be a fighter—to tie McCain to Bush at every turn, and to show that when hit over his patriotism or his credentials as commander in chief he will hit back harder.
If those Democrats were right—if that was indeed Obama’s most important job—than the speech that wrapped up the 2008 Democratic convention probably succeeded both as both rhetoric and as politics.
Still, even the finest phrases don't change the reality that it's hard to practice new politics and old at the very same time.