Obama Delivers an American Promise

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

August 29, 2008

Barack Obama used his acceptance speech at the pinnacle of the Democratic National Convention to define his own terrain for waging the 2008 presidential election. Introducing himself as a man of American values who has lived out the American dream, Obama offered pointed criticisms of his rival and forcefully articulated the Democratic case on national security. He put some policy meat on the bones of the economic change he intends. And he even launched a new theme—America’s “promise”—a word that does double-duty as both opportunity and obligation.

Obama heeded the unanimous finding of surveys in recent months—namely, that economic anxieties now stand at the top of the people’s concerns. After declaring early that America is in trouble on many fronts, at home and abroad, he sketched a broad economic agenda, gesturing toward tax policy, energy, education, health care, family-friendly workforce policies, bankruptcy reform to preserve worker’s pensions, Social Security, and equal pay for equal work.

Obama denied that he would take a classic “tax and spend” approach to government. He insisted that he would pay for all his proposals by closing corporate loopholes and purging the federal budget of outdated and inefficient programs, while cutting taxes for 95 percent of working families.

Now it’s up to the American voters to decide whether they regard his words as a coherent and credible package of proposals. No one can fairly say that Obama has left them in the dark about his plans.

In an interview two days before he accepted his party’s nomination, Obama described his forthcoming speech as “workmanlike.” That is a fair description of the speech he delivered. It did not rise to the heights of his 2004 convention speech, but it was not intended to. Clearly, certain portions of the electorate—older, less educated, working class rather than professional—have been unresponsive to his eloquence and high-flying idealism. This speech was in large measure directed to them. It said, in essence: I share your values, I understand your plight, here’s what I’m going to do about it. Oh, and by the way, my opponent won’t help you because he just doesn’t get it.

It remains to be seen whether this blunter, more concrete approach will help Obama make inroads among these voters, many of whom supported Hillary Clinton and are now wavering between Obama and McCain.

While this speech was solid and well-conceived, it did not quite measure up to the greatest acceptance speeches in American history. It was about the future, as it had to be, but it was oddly devoid of a compelling narrative of where America has been, is now, and needs to go. In the past decade, the American people have suffered a series of rude shocks. They thought they would enjoy peace and security after the end of the Cold War, and they believed that America could compete and win in the new global economy. They do not understand why incomes are stagnating, prices are soaring, and high-paying manufacturing jobs are disappearing. They crave an explanation of what has gone wrong, and a compelling new story about the terms of future success.

In short, while Obama has laid a sound foundation for his fall campaign, there is more work to be done—especially because, as he acknowledged, public confidence in government as an agent of change is at a very low ebb. If the people cannot be persuaded that a prudently activist government can improve their lives, the classic conservative argument for smaller government and lower taxes may retain its appeal, even in today’s tough economic times.