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Obama's Acceptance Speech Hit Some High Notes, But His Themes Won't Hold Up

Like Joseph P. Kennedy, who did not stay in Los Angeles to see his son deliver his acceptance speech in the Los Angeles Coliseum--the last time a Democratic nominee did so in a stadium (for a good account of that, see this excellent story in USA Today)--I decided to watch the speech on television rather than in the stadium.

Our reasons were different. Ambassador Kennedy (who was the same age in 1960 as John McCain is now) did not want to be spotlighted as the man who had bought the nomination for his son (which he was); I wanted to see how it played on television. Joseph Kennedy flew to New York and invited himself to watch the speech with Henry Luce, the proprietor of the then Republican-leaning Time and Life but who had a soft spot for Catholics (his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, was a Catholic convert), in his River House apartment in New York.

I chose, faute de mieux (as Jean-François Kerry would say), to watch the speech in my room at the Courtyard Marriott Cherry Creek (which is a couple of miles from the Saks/Neiman's shopping center and across the street from a "checks cashed" store).

First, a trivial point. The temple stage set at Invesco Field was obviously a knockoff of the Pergamon Altar in the quite wonderful Pergamon Museum in Berlin, put together by Middle East history academicians (when Germany had the best of them) in the early 20th century. Did Barack Obama have time in his visit to Berlin (when he didn't have time to fly to see the wounded American soldiers in Ramstein) to visit the Pergamon Museum? Just asking. It's something every cultured person should see. (By the way, why wasn't there any reference to individual investment accounts in a speech delivered in a stadium to which Invesco bought naming rights?)

Anyway, during most of the speech, the setting (as seen on NBC, ABC, and the local Fox affiliate; the Courtyard Marriott, to its shame, doesn't have Fox News on its cable menu) didn't seem too off-putting. What looked weird (and to Marc Ambinder in the stadium, too) was the fireworks erupting from each end of the Pergamon temple after Obama spoke. And the drop-off from the podium was off-putting for those of us who are scared of heights.

And Obama? This was not quite his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when, after all, he wasn't the Democratic presidential nominee. His delivery was not quite flawless, but that didn't matter. He seemed, to some conservative bloggers at least, to be angry, but he read off the teleprompter with great skill. (What if someone had blitzed the teleprompters? Bad thought.)

I thought it was, for most voters, a workmanlike rather than an inspirational speech. He started with the advantage that the mood of the country is negative--a big majority of us think the nation is seriously on the wrong track. He's going with the flow there.

But on the other main themes, of this speech and this Democratic National Convention, I'm not quite so sure he's on steady ground.

A fair part of the speech was devoted to the notion that John McCain is the (90 percent) same as George W. Bush. But that's pretty easy to refute. Temperamentally, on a variety of high-profile issues, McCain has been over many years at odds with Bush, and I don't think Obama's clever tropes are going to affect the public's impressions of this very much.

The second theme of Obama's speech, and that of the subsidiary speakers at the convention, was that middle-class Americans are suffering terribly (despite the revised economic figures that showed gross domestic product in the second quarter increasing not 1.9 percent but 3.3 percent). Obama went into something like a laundry list of how his administration would help everybody out.

Conservative commentators have noticed the tensions between the life stories of how the Obamas and the Bidens have lifted themselves by ther own efforts and how people in similar situations now can only hope for advancement with additional government assistance. There's an obvious tension here: The safety net worked in the past, and we need more in the future. But I think there's an additional problem. How credible are the promises that everybody can go to college and get healthcare services without paying anything? Are Obama and the Democrats promising too much?

On energy, we heard some defensiveness. "Drilling is a stopgap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close." The audience in the stadium loved this. But $4 gas has undermined this position hugely. Obama and the Democrats are playing defense here.

My bottom line is that the major themes of Obama's speech and--so far as he controlled it--the Democrats' themes may not be sustainable. McCain = Bush: There are too many instances (not all to conservatives' liking) to the contrary. Economic distress: But would raising taxes on high earners and raising protectionist walls alleviate it? Obama's campaign tried to insert more "granular" descriptions of what an Obama government (and Democratic Congress) would do. But are they credible?

And finally, Obama's attempt to rule out of bounds any suggestions that he is not "patriotic." Why should we ignore his 20-year association with his preacher (and inspiration for the title of his 2005 book), who proclaims, "God damn America!"? Why should we ignore his association with the unrepentant Weather Underground bomber terrorist William Ayers-- Obama and the mainstream media would like to sweep these things aside, but are they not important things about who he is?

It's nice to declare out of bounds any attacks that may hurt you. But why should it be considered fair?

By Michael Barone

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