President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden Democratic National Convention Speeches: Is That All You Got?

–Richard E. Vatz

      It was a surreal night for devotees of incumbent presidential and vice presidential national convention speeches.
     The elocutionary excellence of speeches by Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama could not have been surpassed, yet the message would have left any disinterested viewer wondering, “Is that all you got?”

     And preceding these speeches was another excellent elocutionist, Sen. John Kerry, whose incongruous taunt was to repeat his own statement from the 2004 campaign that toppled his presidential aspirations – referring to his flip-flopping –and use it as a charge against Mitt Romney: “Talk about being for it before you were against it!  Mr. Romney—here’s a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!
     This is not clever rhetoric, as Bill Clinton’s was when he quotes Ronald Reagan‘s taunt, “There you go again,” because that clever phrase was not used to destroy his own presidential race.  It’s either a telling shot – in which case Kerry was admitting his campaign was flawed – or not a telling shot, in which case he implies it is not a significant criticism of Gov. Romney.
     On to les speeches des jours (sorry):
n  Joe Biden.  Yet another excellent practitioner in the art of public speaking – where do the Democrats getall of these excellent rhetoricians?  Maybe it’s a Fluke…oops; not all of them speak so well.
Joe praised the President’s “grit” and “determination.”  He learned on-the-job about Obama’s heart.  He learned of Obama’s ability to take out bad guys like bin Laden – (is there no other foreign policy aggressiveness that the Administration can even claim?).  He points out that General Motors was saved – there is some disconsonant evidence on this, but let’s grant that this selected winner has won.
     In an unintended homage to the rhetoric of President Richard Nixon, the Vice President said, “And you deserve a President who will never quit on you.
     Joe has lost none of his remarkable pauses and crescendos and diminuendos.  But this night, unlike the remarkable night of Bill Clinton, why not address why Obamanomics is more effective than you think and will lead us out of the economic morass in which we find America?
n  President Barack Obama.  I cannot remember a weaker speech given in a more rousing style.  This is the classic example of style over substance.  The president should have taken a lesson from the exquisite, if substantively arguable, evidence-filled deliberative address of his new friend, President Clinton.  (What irony – Clinton’s speech was touted as proof of a rapprochement between the two, when in reality it may have completely undermined Obama’s effort by comparison.)
     I urge you to look at Obama’s convention address and then read it;  judge for yourself if the excitement of his speech has anything to do with the meat of the content.
     The speech was close to what we in Persuasion Theory call an “apologia” speech, one which implies regret for his not having accomplished what he said he would.  He begged the audience to understand that it takes “more than a few years” to solve the problems that he implied (and will forever imply) were caused by President George W. Bush’s tenure in office.  In one of his last lines he actually said prominently, “…we learn from our mistakes….  The president cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose depression was double-dip and lasted until World War II.
     His speech was Boxer speaking in Animal Farm: “I will work harder.”
     He argued the lack of particulars in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, but gave one non-committal sentence apiece on the critical challenges of Iran and Israel: “Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace. The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.”
     President Obama’s speech came down to this: we are all in this together (the central convention collectivist theme), but our opponents want improvement only for themselves.  We are bipartisan and cooperative; they are partisan and uncooperative.  In fact they are recalcitrant.  We killed bin Laden.
     In the end there is nothing in  the speech that would lead any listener to infer that the next four years will be better than the last four years.
     “Hope and change” is down to “hope.”  In four years that buzz word may be gone as well.


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Professor Vatz teaches Political Rhetoric  at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013).

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