Friday Talking Points [45] -- Lessons Democrats Should Learn From Obama's Speech

[ Posted Friday, August 29th, 2008 – 17:11 UTC ]

I know that just about the entire blogosphere is talking about John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin (who?) for his running mate, but I, for one, refuse to let John McCain distract me from writing about Barack Obama's acceptance speech last night, given to a cheering throng of 84,000 in Denver's football stadium (I refuse to use corporate names for stadiums... stadia?... until they start paying me directly for doing so... hmmph).

Obama gave one humdinger of a speech. I fully expected him to, as everyone (even his opponents) acknowledges that this is his strongest point. So a humdinger of a speech was exactly what I expected, and Obama certainly delivered one.

What I did not expect, and what personally blew me away, was that this was one of the best speeches I've ever heard any Democrat give, because it shows that someone in the party has finally -- finally! -- learned from some typical (and chronic) Democratic mistakes from times past.

In other words, Obama showed with this speech that he does indeed "get it."

It's about time a Democrat showed everyone how it is supposed to be done, that's all I can say. But unless these lessons are learned by other Democrats, there's a danger of any other Democratic politician will say "well, it works for Obama, but he's a great orator and I'm not, so I'm not going to try what Obama did."

Because that would be a mistake. So I'd like to point out a few of these lessons today, instead of the normal talking points. There is just no way I could top even a single paragraph of what Obama did last night, so instead I'm turning the whole column over to analyzing it (and praising it) in the hopes that others will follow in Obama's footsteps. So very quickly let's get the awards out of the way, and then we'll take a look at that speech.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Senator Barack Obama wins the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week. His campaign team deserves special mention for putting on a flawless convention, but Obama himself easily walked away with the award after last night.


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

It was hard to even pick someone for Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week, since Democrats just looked so good. After much thought, I am reluctantly giving it to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has always seemed to be the wrong guy for the leadership job he has been given, and his speech just reinforced this opinion in me. The text of his speech is actually not that bad, when you read it. I mean, it's not up to the Obama standard, but few of them are. Reid's text is fine. It was his delivery that killed it.

Now, I admit I didn't watch every single speech, and I did see many who delivered their speeches worse than Reid, but all of those people were not leaders of their party in Congress. You would think being able to deliver a speech with a minimum of political style would be a requirement for the job of party leader, but Reid proves once again that this is just not so for Senate Democrats.

For a speech that made watching paint dry seem more exciting, Harry Reid gets this week's MDDOTW award. Sorry, Harry.

The ultimate irony: a sign held up (assumably by a Nevada Democrat) during Reid's speech that said "Give 'em heck, Harry." Wow. Giving 'em "heck" is the best even his fans can hope for? The ghost of Harry Truman is having a great big laugh right now, I can tell you that.


Friday Talking Points

Volume 45 (8/29/08)

OK, with that out of the way, let's get on to some highlights of Barack Obama's speech.

The whole speech is worth either reading in full or viewing, if you missed it last night. And my apologies if I haven't excerpted what you felt were the best parts of his speech, as I'm specifically looking for lessons on framing here. Both framing your opponent and making him an object of ridicule, and countering the framing your opponent is trying to lay at your feet, by showing how equally ridiculous his view is.

These excerpts are taken from a "prepared for delivery" transcript, meaning that Obama's words may be slightly different on the video, I should point out. They are presented here in the order they appeared in Obama's speech.

These challenges are not all of government's making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.

America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.

This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work.

This country is more generous than one where a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment he's worked on for twenty years and watch it shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news.

We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty; that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes.

Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land -- enough! This moment -- this election -- is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive. Because next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third. And we are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On November 4th, we must stand up and say: "Eight is enough."

First, get Bush's name in there. Prove you're not afraid to say his name (this sounds silly, but many politicians are coached by their handlers "never say your opponent's name" which usually winds up sounding silly in an actual speech).

Tell America that we're better -- this combines hope and optimism. Ronald Reagan used this trick brilliantly to get re-elected with his "Morning in America" theme. People love politicians who are optimistic about the future.

Give a few examples of how average Americans are uncertain about the future, which resonate with voters. This is basic "I share your pain" stuff that Democrats are usually quite good at, but Obama has been (rightly or wrongly) criticized in the media for not being good at it, so it's good to hear (this is a recurring theme to the whole speech). Summed up: "I am like you. I understand where you are coming from."

That last one -- referencing Katrina -- is brilliant. Most voters (and especially independents) may have views all over the map on what the size and scope of the government should ideally be -- but all of them want basic competence from the government they're paying for. Katrina was the ultimate incompetence moment for Bush.

"Eight is enough" is fantastic. OK, it's a cheesy reference to a 1970s television program which many won't even recognize, but who cares? It's short, snappy, and does two things at the same time: ties McCain to Bush (and even throws in Cheney, for good measure), and reminds voters how bad the past eight years truly have been. In only three words. That can fit easily on a bumpersticker, and make an excellent chant for the crowd to join in. Eight. Is. Enough.

But the record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush ninety percent of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than ninety percent of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a ten percent chance on change.

The truth is, on issue after issue that would make a difference in your lives -- on health care and education and the economy -- Senator McCain has been anything but independent. He said that our economy has made "great progress" under this President. He said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. And when one of his chief advisors -- the man who wrote his economic plan -- was talking about the anxiety Americans are feeling, he said that we were just suffering from a "mental recession," and that we've become, and I quote, "a nation of whiners."

A nation of whiners? Tell that to the proud auto workers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made. Tell that to the military families who shoulder their burdens silently as they watch their loved ones leave for their third or fourth or fifth tour of duty. These are not whiners. They work hard and give back and keep going without complaint. These are the Americans that I know.

Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than one hundred million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

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. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is -- you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.

McCain equals ninety percent of Bush. This is such a basic equation, and Obama drives it home with the "I'm not ready to take a ten percent chance on change" line. One of McCain's perceived strengths (aided and abetted by the media) is that he's a "Maverick." Well, maybe he used to be back before he started running for president, but ever since then his nose has been glued to Bush's backside. And this has to be hammered hard, because it truly is a strong point for McCain. The voters see him this way, and need to be reminded that he is 90% Bush pretty much every chance Obama gets, to nail McCain on his own voting record. "Maverick? Yeah, right. He's 90% Bush."

That Phil Gramm "nation of whiners" thing works well, because it adds to the frame Obama is putting on McCain -- he's old, he's rich, he's the past not the future, and he is dangerously out of touch with average Americans. Barack should say "I know you are not whiners, but that's what McCain's campaign thinks of you" every chance he gets.

The next bit is brilliant -- it's not that John McCain doesn't care, it's that he doesn't get it. He is rich, rich, rich, and dangerously out of touch. Also, he's old, and probably confused.

The last bit, about feeling helpless, is another good way to get Republican votes. America has seen what Republicans can do when running the country, and it doesn't look so good. Obama is telling them "I know what you're going through." Once again, reinforcing "I care about you and I understand you. McCain may pretend to care, but he's not going to do anything at all to help you out."

Because in the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.

In the face of that young student who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships.

When I listen to another worker tell me that his factory has shut down, I remember all those men and women on the South Side of Chicago who I stood by and fought for two decades ago after the local steel plant closed.

And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman. She's the one who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.

I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as President of the United States.

Translation: I am NOT a celebrity. I am an average American. My life has been so much closer to your own than John McCain's that it is not even funny. My family has a military background, my family knows what food stamps are, my family had a single Mom, my family knows the importance of scholarships, my family knows what a student loan is, my family knows the struggle of women in the workplace, and my family knows what a closed steel plant means.

John McCain does not know any of this. He does not understand you -- Joe and Jane Voter -- like I do. He is dangerously, dangerously out of touch. John McCain wouldn't know a food stamp or a student loan if one came up and bit him on the ass. And he's trying to make fun of me and my family roots -- meaning he's making fun of you, too. I bet you're as outraged about that as I am.

Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves -- protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

That's the promise of America -- the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.

That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now. So let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am President.

This is a crucial part of the speech, because it attacks the Republican view of Democrats directly -- at the foundation. According to Republicans, Democrats want government to do everything for them, give everything to them, with no personal responsibility whatsoever. Obama is saying "this is wrong." Obama defines government as doing things we cannot do individually, and uses Bush examples to show why. Lead in toys. Mercury in water. Politics instead of science.

Obama says that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also bear a common responsibility to each other -- and that is how Democrats define the role of government. He is even using Republican code words here ("personal responsibility") that could pay off big for him among center-right voters and independent voters in the fall. This is about as far as you can get from the Republican "Democrats are all about entitlement" talking point as you can get, which helps Obama particularly among white voters.

He goes on to give a State-Of-The-Union-style "laundry list" of things he would do. Now, while the section is too long to quote in its entirety, this was an absolute must for Obama in this speech. Because this was his one chance to shut up forever the Republican talking point that the media has been using about Obama during the entire campaign -- that he "talks nice" but "has no details." This is utter horse manure, as Obama didn't say anything last night that he hasn't said dozens upon dozens of times in the past -- but this time everyone was watching him while he said it. The media, after the speech, appeared stunned by this (proving once again how shallow and uniformed they truly are) -- he actually gave details!

Now, of course, the media will focus on the issues involved and we'll have a rational debate about them.

In a pig's eye.


No, sadly, now the media will pick up some other way of demeaning the discussion, and move merrily on. Sigh.

Washington's been talking about our oil addiction for the last thirty years, and John McCain has been there for twenty-six of them. In that time, he's said no to higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, no to investments in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. And today, we import triple the amount of oil as the day that Senator McCain took office.

Now is the time to end this addiction, and to understand that drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close.

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I'll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy -- wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced.

America, now is not the time for small plans.

John McCain is going to use drilling for oil as a big part of his convention. He's even "doubled down" on this with his vice presidential pick, the Governor of Alaska. So a little pre-emptive strike is necessary. Remind voters over and over again that McCain, the self-styled "Mr. Experience" has been in Washington a long, long time and done nothing about the issue. Nothing that is, except vote against all the things he says he for now.

This will be a weak spot for Obama and a strong point for McCain (the polls show large majorities are for more drilling, now!), so it was good that Obama tried to head it off a bit here. In doing so, he is shoring up his own weak spot, and attacking McCain on one of his strengths.

Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don't, you'll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves. And as someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.

This is a gigantic issue, and cuts across party lines. Obama needs to lean on this a lot more heavily. Instead of talking about health care the way people have been used to hearing about it from politicians, change the conversation to access. End the insidious practice of people becoming "uninsurable" in this country.

But he missed the best way to frame this issue, I have to say. Here is what Obama should say about people being denied health care:

"If John McCain gave up the health care that he gets from the government (paid for by your tax dollars) and the socialized medicine he gets as a veteran (also paid for by your tax dollars) and tried to use the plan he is trying to force on all Americans, he would have a hard time finding a company to insure him. With his pre-existing conditions and at his age, it would be almost impossible to find any insurance anywhere in America, at any price. John McCain doesn't even realize this is a problem, since he wants to force this on all of us. I do see the problem, and I promise I will fix it. John McCain does not understand how health care operates in America, and it would be a disaster to put him in charge of changing it."

And Democrats, we must also admit that fulfilling America's promise will require more than just money. It will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our "intellectual and moral strength." Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can't replace parents; that government can't turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.

Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility -- that's the essence of America's promise.

See previous comments about "personal responsibility."

And just as we keep our keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America's promise abroad. If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have.

For while Senator McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats we face. When John McCain said we could just "muddle through" in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell -- but he won't even go to the cave where he lives.

And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush Administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we're wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.

That's not the judgment we need. That won't keep America safe. We need a President who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past.

Translation: McCain wants to have a foreign policy debate? Bring it on! I've been right and he's been wrong on so many things, I welcome the debate. It's about judgment, not experience, folks. McCain is all about the past. I am not.

Americans like to see candidates with backbone. And we rarely see it from Democrats on the presidential stage. People see what you do when your opponent challenges you, and they think about what you would do on the world stage with leaders of other countries. And while Bush has pushed this over into cowboyism and belligerence, don't make the mistake of not answering to such challenges. True, America is tired of Bush, but we also want to see someone that can stand up and defend themselves. But Obama is just getting warmed up on this particular theme....

We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans -- have built, and we are here to restore that legacy.

As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.

"I will never hesitate to defend this nation." Absolutely beautiful. Democrats can be tough when we need to be. Any suggestion that we can't is offensive to me personally.

Now that is how it should be done. But again, Obama has more to say on the subject.

These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain.

But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America -- they have served the United States of America.

So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

Slam dunk! Obama is directly challenging McCain: Stop attacking my patriotism! Stop it! Right now!

The best line in the entire speech, one that was crucial to fighting all the email smears about him was "So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain." Obama delivered it perfectly. In no uncertain terms. "I love this country." And do NOT challenge my patriotism.

Once again, Obama shows other Democrats how it should be done, for those willing to learn the lesson.

And the final line is fantastic, because it attacks McCain's campaign slogan itself. "We all put our country first." That clip needs to be played repeatedly throughout the Republican convention, since "Country first" will be on a lot of signs there. Obama needs to roll out an ad with this clip as soon as possible. "We all put our country first."

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America's promise -- the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.

I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.

You make a big election about small things.

And you know what -- it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping, and settle for what you already know.

Obama really drives it home with this, because he tees up everything the Republicans are going to use to demonize him next week, and answers them all in advance. A pre-emptive strike on the entire Republican convention. Showing that you will strongly defend even things that people may not agree with you on is critical, because it shows that you are not afraid to talk about them, and not afraid to say "you may not agree with me, but here is what I believe, and here is something I think we can agree on."

The Republicans are going to have a tough time next week. Because their slash-and-burn style is going to look pretty pathetic after this. Obama sums it up: when you have no new ideas, all you can do is attack your opponent. And that's kind of sad.

I can't wait for the debates.


Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [45] -- Lessons Democrats Should Learn From Obama's Speech”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Sen. Obama gave a great speach last night. I am hoping that we will hear many of the points he made again and again on the campaign trail. Especially when he visits the "battle ground" states. He needs to get the message out that he will be both good for the country and good for the people.


  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yes, that was a great speech and a fascinating convention...on any number of levels.

    But I am starting to get concerned about the closeness of this race - at least, according to the polls.

    While Obama/Biden are saying all the right things and in pretty much the right way, they are saying it to the wrong crowds. Preaching to the converted will get them nowhere, fast...despite McCain's veep selection! Over the course of the next 60 days, they both need to venture out deep into Republican and Independent territory, debate these voters, make the case for a radical change in course and ask for the votes of life-long Republicans and newly registered Independents.

  3. [3] 
    BLaws wrote:


    But I am starting to get concerned about the closeness of this race - at least, according to the polls.

    The polls are flawed. They use a weighting formula to come up with their results. Taking 1000ish people they may get more of one demographic than another, like more woman than men, at a rate higher than the normal rate for what shows up in the polls. Like if voting is 55% woman 45% men, and they end up getting calls to 65% woman and 35% men they weight it back to the 55/45 distribution.

    But that completely assumes that you are using a model for voter turn out that is the same as what actually shows up. And that is why its so close. But none of the polls I've seen even comes close to the turn out on 18-29 year olds. Now, I know the youth generally doesn't show up between primary day and voting day. But here in Ohio we had 350% greater turn out among the youth this primary over last, while the upper age groups only increase by 120% or so.

    I doubt any of the pollsters are going to be accurate on their prediction of turn out on the 18-29 range. Even a few % difference in that group can make a difference in the polls.

    And honestly, I'm glad the polls are close. It makes people show up for Obama. If he was 10% ahead some would think "oh it doesn't matter he'll win anyway" and then not vote.

  4. [4] 
    benskull wrote:

    Oh boy! It was a good week. I admit, I missed both Michelle and Hillary, but was thoroughly impressed by Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and of course Obama. These speeches were great. Clinton really laid it down as far as, where he left the country, and how Bush thrashed it. His line on giving them another chance based on the last 8 years was great. And 3rd times a charm... Biden was awesome too. In a discussion with my father we both marveled at what great family stories the running mates have, and how this really contradicts the stale position of Republicans and family values, especially looking at McCain and his family history. Any way, I think it was a great week, and Chris, great recap on the speech. I'd like to add, I'm pretty pleased with the vp pick. While I know nothing about Sara Palin except what has come out in the news lately, I know that this pick does one thing, it concedes that Obama is right, and that the country needs a new untainted leader. Not only that, but it shows McCain was wrong in bashing Obamas youth and inexperience. America doesn't care what McCain has been saying, so for the repubs, if you can't beat them, join them. Fortunately its a pretty see through move. And as far as trying to grab a few ticked off Hillary supporters, well, I doubt it will do much good, women aren't stupid, they can see right through it too. And if a few do head that way, I can't imagine it would be anything significant. Two months till election day and four months till GWB is out!

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