Change we can't all believe in


Bucking the trend of Obama love, Joshua Trevino calls last night's speech an "epochal" squandering of political capital, caused by the candidate's "ego-driven indiscipline," and an error that might prove fatal. I'm not sure how well the critique hangs together, but there's some interesting stuff:

Instead of the requisite deft interweaving of righteous indignation and sunny promise that made him a political celebrity in 2004 and propelled him to the nomination in 2008, Barack Obama delivered a surprisingly strident and joyless forty-five minutes of rhetoric. The remarks should have introduced him to the American people, and shown them what the Democratic base sees in him: hope, change, can-itude, or whatever other gauzy quality made him their nominee. What the American people got was less an introduction to Barack Obama than an exposition on what Barack Obama is against. It was fantastic for the base — and especially the left-wing base, which is especially animated by its hate objects — but it was alternately boring and disturbing for everyone else. As Marc Ambinder noted from the stadium, it was basically a primary-season stump speech.

How did Obama come to fail so remarkably, having delivered so often before? The clues lie in the candidate's character. The remarkable thing about Barack Obama is how much of a cipher he remains: he is excellent at presenting himself as a tabula rasa upon which only virtue may be written, and there should be no doubt that the effort is deliberate. John McCain's personal flaws are well known, but Obama's are rather elusive. Still, they exist, and they show most clearly when Obama's subject is Obama. I first learned of his ego problems when speaking with a former law school classmate of his; and there were glimpses of it for public consumption with things like the "I have become a symbol" incident. It was not till tonight, though, that Obama's basic internal fragility was put on stark public view. This was the biggest night of his public life, and the defining moment of his historic turn — and what did he talk about?

Barack Obama talked about John McCain.

Take a moment to feed the plain text of Obama's acceptance speech into a weighted word-cloud generator. You'll get something that looks like this, and you'll note that the biggest word — signifying the noun most often invoked — is "promise," with 32 mentions. Ordinary enough for a political speech. Next is "America," with 28 mentions, which is also expected. Third, though, is "McCain," with 21 mentions. It is difficult to overstate how remarkable this is: Reagan in 1980 barely mentioned Jimmy Carter, and Obama in 2004 discussed John Kerry solely because he was keynoting for the man. Set against the light of precedent and the demands of this speech, the relentless focus upon John McCain emerges as profoundly strange.

 Personally I thought the speech was humdinger, but I like Obama's speechifying generally. Matt and Jesse's legitimate reservations aside, the reason I don't like political speech is that you have to pretend to take seriously something manifestly bogus. Nobody actually believes the president's going to be saving farms or mending anybody's life. Within those parameters, this one seemed to win the crowd in the stadium and at home. (I was watching with a bunch of Democrats though, so it was an easy crowd.)

I was amused that Obama went to the Patton well one more time.