Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Conventional Speech

President Obama did not deliver a slam-dunk speech last night. But nor did he lose the ball to the opposing team. Instead, he drove in for a layup and everyone got to watch as the ball wobbled around the rim before dropping through the net.

The most interesting speech was delivered by, of all people, Sen. John Kerry. After being thumped by George W. Bush and swift boated by the swift boaters, it must have felt good for Kerry to be able to do what the GOP has been doing for decades—play the national-security card. Kerry effectively lashed into Romney for surrounding himself with "neocon advisers" and for proclaiming that it would be silly to try and move "heaven and earth" to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Kerry had game. Moxie. All the things that were missing in his 2004 bid.

Obama? Not so much. His task was a tough one. Bill Clinton had already mesmerized the crowd, and much of the press corps, with his folksy lecture about how Republicans had destroyed his legacy—balanced budgets, a thriving economy—and launched two wars, plus tax cuts. He did his mightiest to set the stage for Obama—and for Hillary in 2016, who is jetting around the globe, killing time until she can make another run for the Oval Office. If Obama could tap Bill Clinton as his running mate, he would have a much better shot at reelection.

As it was, Obama delivered a somewhat lackluster speech, long on denouncing Romney, short on what he would actually do in a second term. Obama announced,

Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!

But what about Obama? What would he undertake to restore the economy at a moment when, the USDA reports, more Americans than ever are going hungry? Nothing doing. The president contrasted himself with Romney and left it at that. Small wonder that the Washington Post is bemoaning that Obama was chary about providing any specifics about job creation. At most he seems to be suggesting that he could create one million jobs by tinkering with the tax code to encourage companies to shift production back to America from abroad. Meanwhile, job creation right now is lackluster, with the latest report indicating that only ninety-six thousand were created in August.

Obama, in other words, is playing injured. He will probably be able to hit one last shot at the buzzer that will secure him a second term. His greatest asset isn't anything he has done. It's that his adversary is Mitt Romney, the most hapless Republican candidate since Bob Dole. In any case, the odds were always against Romney. As Andrew Hacker points out in the New York Review of Books, only one Republican challenger has been able to unseat a Democratic president in the past six elections—Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter.

In a second term, Obama, like most of his predecessors, would probably seek succor in foreign policy, the one sphere where the commander-in-chief can really be commanding. Foreign leaders have become comfortable with him.  One such leader is Vladimir Putin who is calling Obama "genuine" in contrast to Romney who is "mistaken" about Russia. Obama would surely pursue a more conciliatory path toward Russia than Romney, who has stamped it as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."  Even Putin knows that this is rhetorical flapdoodle for the campaign trail, but he must also realize that Romney would pursue a harder line than Obama. But whether Obama wants to embrace Putin's endorsement is another matter. If Putin becomes his last hope, then it will be clear that he's really in trouble.

Image: Steve Jurvetson