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Obama’s Speech Attracts 38 Million Viewers, Earns Mixed Reviews

August 29, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama's speech to some 80,000 people at a Denver stadium capped off a week of unity and surprise appearances at the Democratic National Convention. A panel of journalists assesses how the event was received across the country.

JIM LEHRER: And speaking of that storyline, and to the Democrats, as seen from beyond the Rockies.

Barack Obama capped off the convention last night with a speech to some 80,000-plus, of course, at a football stadium. We begin with some excerpts.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story, of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.

It is that promise that’s always set this country apart, that through hard work and sacrifice each of us can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams, as well.

That’s why I stand here tonight. Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women — students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive.

We meet at one of those defining moments, a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.

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 $5 million a year?

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

For over two decades — 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 that you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You are on your own.

Well, it’s time for them to own their failure. It’s time for us to change America. And that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.

So — so let me — let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am president.

Listen now — I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95 percent of all working families, because, in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class.

And just as we 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.

America, we cannot turn back…

… not with so much work to be done; not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for; not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save; not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend.

America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone.

At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.

Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Jeffrey Brown in Washington takes the story from there.

Mixed signals over Obama speech

Ruben Navarrette
San Diego Union-Tribune
There isn't a politician in America, man or woman, who wouldn't give his or her right arm to be able to fill a stadium, 80,000 people, to have watch parties around the country, people lining up in living rooms to watch you give a speech like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eighty thousand in the stadium and, according to Nielsen, more than 38 million people around the country. Just for reference, that's more than watched the recent Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing and, yes, more than the Academy Awards and the hugely popular finals of "American Idol" this year.

Four who watched from some key states are with us now. Three syndicated columnists: Rhonda Chriss Lokeman of the Kansas City Star; Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; and Ruben Navarrette from the San Diego Union Tribune. And Rosemary Goudreau is the editorial page editor for the Tampa Tribune.

Well, Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, I'd like to ask you first about last night as a television event, what those 38 million people saw. What came through to you?

RHONDA CHRISS LOKEMAN, The Kansas City Star: Well, it certainly was not your father's or your mother's Democratic National Convention, much less your grandparent's convention, starting with the nominee himself.

But I think what we got last night was something unexpected. I think, if you were to listen to the Democrats' critics, there were to be trumpets blaring and Barack Obama was to walk on stage to a choir of angels, as some kind of messiah.

Instead, what we saw last night before he accepted the nomination was a careful, steady stroll on stage. And I believe most people in the stadium did not realize he was on stage until he began speaking.

I think what the Democrats succeeded in doing the entire week was not to entertain, and I think that's something people get used to seeing with reality television. They get used to entertainers.

I think this was substance over style. It was an attempt to define the candidate and the new direction of the party itself. And I think they succeeded.

And they did it in a new format that was rather risky, an open-air arena, but I think served its purpose, because, even with 84,000 people present in that stadium, Barack Obama and Joe Biden managed to have an intimate conversation with the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jack Kelly in Pittsburgh, how did that large stadium come off on the small screen for you?

JACK KELLY, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Well, I think it has very little impact overall, but I think it'll be a mild net negative, especially over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: A mild negative? Why is that?

JACK KELLY: A mild net negative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that.

JACK KELLY: He's a presidential candidate. It's a big too grandiose a setting, especially for the remarks that he made, which were pretty much standard Democratic boilerplate without terribly many specifics.

Now, Barack Obama never gives a poor speech when he's working from a prepared text, so this was a good speech. It wasn't his best speech, and it wasn't the best speech of the convention. But I think it would have gone over better in the traditional setting, in the campaign hall.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ruben Navarrette in San Diego, we hear a lot about in the Internet age that the audiences are down for television. Certainly, the conventions don't get that much coverage. But was this a television spectacle that worked?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE, The San Diego Union-Tribune: Oh, absolutely. It was a homerun. I kept thinking throughout the whole thing, "There isn't a politician in America, man or woman, who wouldn't give his or her right arm to be able to fill a stadium, 80,000 people, to have watch parties around the country, people lining up in living rooms to watch you give a speech like this," as you said, 38 million people.

This is an amazing victory for Obama on the spectacle of it. You put your finger on it.

But beyond that, in terms of what was said, the actual text of the speech, it was a bundle of contradictions. It was these mixed messages about whether or not it's our responsibility to pull ourselves up and help ourselves or whether it's government's responsibility to do that for us. It was a confused message.

But that doesn't negate the fact that you don't see this every day. You simply do not see a presidential candidate standing before 80,000 people in a football stadium, with people cheering and crying. That's an amazing accomplishment in and of itself.

High drama, high altitude

Rhonda Chriss Lokeman
Kansas City Star
I think there are people who are just never going to be comfortable with him for one reason or another, regardless of how well he defines himself and how well his supporters try to get out his message.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, I'll come back to the message question, but let me go to Rosemary Goudreau in Tampa and let you weigh in on the question of the spectacle, the television event that so many people saw.

ROSEMARY GOUDREAU, The Tampa Tribune: Well, I think, too, that it was a night -- these were nights of high drama and a perfect coda for the Olympics. In fact, I'll be glad when the conventions are over so that I can get a good night's sleep again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, watching too much television lately?

ROSEMARY GOUDREAU: Absolutely. And not only the speech, but then what everybody has to say about the speech.

There were three things that struck me about the convention. The first storyline that I followed was that of the Clintons and the tension with the Clintons and whether they would do what they needed to do to support Senator Obama.

I think, in the end, they did come through, although there are still a lot of Democratic women in Tampa who are not going to vote for Senator Obama because of what happened to Hillary.

The second thing that struck me was Michelle Obama and whether she could overcome the question of likeability. I think she told a story that humanized her and humanized her husband and related their lives to the lives of average Americans.

But there were a couple of times when she was talking that I found her to be running for first lady, and I thought -- it made me go, "Ouch." And I, too, was surprised that she chose to sit next to John Kerry's wife last night, given the negative feelings about her.

And there are a lot of people who are finding Ms. Obama a bit aggressive, a bit assertive, and a spouse can be a drag on a ticket.

And the third thing that struck me was whether the senator could communicate a seriousness of purpose by saying exactly what he's going to do. His speech last night to me outlined the Democratic agenda. I thought he was specific about a number of things. First time I'd heard him say that he wanted to give tax cuts to 95 percent of Americans. The question is, can he deliver?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, weigh in on some of substance and the message that you heard last night. One of the things we heard in the run-up to this was that -- the notion that Senator Obama had to introduce himself to the American public and had to be clear about what his presidency would be like.

Do you think he succeeded at that?

RHONDA CHRISS LOKEMAN: You know, I think he succeeded a long time ago and he only underscored who he was, who he is, in his acceptance speech.

But I've got to tell you, there are people who, even if Barack Obama stood beside my spiritual leader, Pope Benedict, and Pope Benedict declared he is not a Muslim, there are some people who still would not believe that Barack Obama is not a Muslim.

I think that that is a battle he cannot win. I think that last night, however, he did a very good job of defining who he was.

And not only did the candidate himself do it, if you watched public television last night instead of the commercial stations, you heard from Americans, such as Barney Smith, who took to the microphone to explain why they supported the candidate. And Barney Smith said he was looking for a candidate who supported Barney Smith, not Smith Barney.

And there was a woman there who talked about the e-mail scare tactics that she had received that said various things about Barack Obama which are not true. And she chose to investigate those things.

I think there are people who are just never going to be comfortable with him for one reason or another, regardless of how well he defines himself and how well his supporters try to get out his message.

Does Obama need to prove himself?

Jack Kelly
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For instance, all right, he offered this -- he says he'd like to cut taxes for 95 percent of the middle class and he wants to add hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. And how is he going to do that?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, thanks for the plug there, I should say.

Jack Kelly, back in Pittsburgh, you know, Jim Lehrer just in the news summary noted that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are headed your way this evening. Do you come away after this week with a better sense of who the candidate is?

JACK KELLY: Not really, because he's still not really answered most of the questions about him or really where he would take the country.

For instance, all right, he offered this -- he says he'd like to cut taxes for 95 percent of the middle class and he wants to add hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. And how is he going to do that?

First, how much is the tax -- what is the tax cut going to be? How is it going to be implemented? How will it be paid for? A favorite concern of many in Congress.

And he didn't answer some basic questions about himself, I think, and his ability to lead. There were too many generalities and not enough specifics.

The speech helped him. According to Gallup, he was up 8 points in the tracking polls, according to Rasmussen, up 4 percent, which means that both the McCain and the Obama campaigns had picked it at about right, because McCain predicted he'd get a 15-point bounce, and Axelrod said that there'd be no bounce at all, and that comes out to 7 or 8 points.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ruben Navarrette, what about the tone last night? How did that come through on television for you, with Senator Obama being more forceful and really challenging John McCain in some areas?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: I think it played well, not just well with the people there, obviously, the red meat that that crowd so desired, so wanted, but around the country, as well.

I think a lot of people see that Obama has been criticized, sometimes unfairly. He's had his patriotism challenged. We've nitpicked over ideas about flag pins and is he a real American or not. The New Yorker cover was part of that discussion.

And I think a lot of people are waiting for him to fight back. And when he looked up into the camera and he said, "You know, John McCain, let me tell you something: We all put our country first," the crowd went crazy. So I don't think it was too strong or too strident at all.

This was somebody who needed to be this strong, who needed to set a very forceful tone. And I think he accomplished that.

As to whether or not he defined himself, you know, I have to agree with earlier comments. There are some people who are never going to vote for this guy no matter what. We didn't learn anything new from the video or from his speeches, but there are some people who simply won't be convinced.

He's got to worry about the others. And that's, I think, the real test of what happened last night.

Long term reaction must wait

Rosemary Goudreau
Tampa Bay Tribune
I do think that businesspeople...on whose backs we're going to build our way out of this recession worry that the policies he painted last night are going to cost a lot of money, are going to require more taxes and regulations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rosemary Goudreau, same question about the tone. How do you think that came through on television?

ROSEMARY GOUDREAU: I think he's a wonderful speaker and he has a story that communicated with people on the human level.

But let me tell you about Florida. Let me tell you about Tampa. We have one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. We have -- our Tampa Electric wants to raise rates 31 percent. State Farm Insurance wants to raise rates 47 percent. Property taxes here have ballooned. Our unemployment is over 6 percent.

I did not hear in what he said solutions that are going to make a difference in life, in the lives of people here. And I do think that businesspeople who really -- on whose backs we're going to build our way out of this recession worry that the policies he painted last night are going to cost a lot of money, are going to require more taxes and regulations.

And so I don't think he calmed the concerns of those in the business community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, you're in another battleground state, Missouri. What do you think the dynamic of the week -- did it change things there?

RHONDA CHRISS LOKEMAN: You know, Missouri is the state that sent Claire McCaskill to the Senate. Missouri is the state that elected a dead man rather than have -- rather than have the attorney general, who ended up to be one of our worst nightmares.

So I think Missouri is a battleground state, has always been a battleground state. But I think that, from what I'm gathering from at least Democrats in the state, from Kansas City, St. Louis, Hannibal and beyond, is that they are willing to give him a hearing.

He is speaking above race, beyond race, about middle-class issues, about the economy. And if you lose your home, it is not a black thing or a white thing. And I think he communicated that well last night.

I think he said we need to get beyond the traditional divisions and start talking about what's best not for white America, black America, but what's best for America.

And what's best for Missouri is best for America. And I think the voters here in Missouri and also in neighboring Kansas will be open to his message. And in Missouri and Kansas, they already have been.

That doesn't mean that they will elect him president of the United States, but at least they are giving him a fair having.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And next week, the Republicans, and we'll come back on Friday and look what happened at that point. Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, Jack Kelly, Ruben Navarrette, and Rosemary Goudreau, thank you all very much.