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Obama’s Acceptance Speech a Mix of Politics and Policy

August 28, 2008 at 10:30 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama delivered his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president before a crowd of thousands at Denver's Invesco Field. A panel of NewsHour analysts and historicans react to Thursday night's event.

JIM LEHRER: And with that, I think we’ll catch some closing thoughts on this Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Mark Shields and David Brooks are here, of course. And in our other studio are our convention historian team of Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, and Peniel Joseph. And over at the stadium, where all of that is going on, are Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff.


GWEN IFILL: Hi, Jim. As you can tell, we’re right in the middle of a big fireworks display. You know, the last night of a convention is usually about balloon drops, but instead we’ve got confetti and we’ve got fireworks and more American flags than I’ve ever seen, probably because, you can safely say, this is unlike any other political event we’ve ever seen.

It’s been quite remarkable. Barack Obama wanted to show that he was steely and that John McCain was stubborn, that he was an ordinary guy and John McCain was not. And so he used this quite amazing crowd, many of whom stood throughout, to make his points, wouldn’t you say, Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, this event, as Gwen said, is like no other political convention we’ve seen, the spectacle, the speech, the fireworks. But there were three things, if I could say quickly, that Barack Obama accomplished tonight.

Number one, to the criticism that he has not put meat on the bones of his economic message, he boiled it down, among other things, to 95 percent tax cuts for the middle class. That’s something everybody can identify with.

He gave more information about who he is. There’s been criticism that people don’t really know him, they don’t feel comfortable with him. We’ve got a lot of information about that.

And, finally, to the criticism some have made that he is not tough enough, we haven’t heard him coming back to the tough McCain Republican message, we heard that tonight over and over again, change. He said it’s time for change, and he said, “Enough now, enough in this election.”

Historic, unconventional speech

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you, Judy, and thanks to you, Gwen.

And now, Peniel, your closing thoughts about tonight, what happened tonight.

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, a truly historic night, one whose symbolic power is going to reverberate around the nation. Barack Obama has really catapulted America into its 21st-century multi-cultural future, really whether Americans are ready for that or not.

JIM LEHRER: Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: You know, I think the lack of a balloon drop wasn't the only unconventional thing about this speech. I think it was a remarkable speech for one thing, I think, in some ways, it sacrificed eloquence of the conventional variety for electability.

This was someone who, as Judy has said, was putting meat on the bones, defining what change means to people sitting around the kitchen table, but also he talked about eliminating obsolescent government programs, as well as closing corporate loopholes.

Over and over, he talked about the search for common ground on issues that have been so divisive -- abortion, gun control, gay rights -- and implicit in all that is the search for a more civil, more workable, if you will, kind of government.

It's going to be very difficult, it seems to me, for people to pin him with the label of conventional liberal or maybe conventional Democrat.

JIM LEHRER: What about you? What do you think, Michael? Do you agree, it's going to be hard to say this is a conventional liberal Democratic speech?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yep. You know, Jim, we were talking earlier about John Kennedy's amazing acceptance speech in 1960. I listened to Barack Obama tonight; I think this one was better.

He told you exactly what he's going to do, point by point, told you who he is, and also didn't do the cheap thing, trying to sort of make himself into something he's not.

This line where he said, "I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office, I don't fit the typical pedigree," 9 out of 10 politicians wouldn't have done -- 9 out of 10 would not have done that. It gives you a sense of who this man is. I think it's going to be a very powerful help with his campaign.

Establishing humble credibility

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you think of the speech? And how do you think it's going to play out in the country, beyond the pundits and even the people in this big stadium?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, obviously, it played very well in the stadium. It did.

But to me, there were elements of it that I think were important for Obama. And whether he achieved his objective, we'll know probably some time in the next two weeks.

He wanted to establish -- and the film did, as well, introducing him -- his own humble, even modest, humble origins. There's a perception in many quarters this is elite, Eastern, Ivy League product. And he wanted to disabuse people of that and to establish his roots and who he was.

I thought it was important -- the campaign felt, I think they were right -- to establish the differences with John McCain. I think he laid those out in rather graphic detail.

He did show a certain steely resolve on the question of patriotism. I thought that was important. It was almost reminiscent of George Mitchell...

JIM LEHRER: Well, because it had been suggested earlier that something John McCain said had questioned...

MARK SHIELDS: ... his own patriotism.

JIM LEHRER: ... questioned Obama's patriotism.

MARK SHIELDS: And George Mitchell at the Iran-Contra hearings said that God, although asked often, doesn't take sides in these, that, you know, patriotism, is not the exclusive franchise of any political party, and that, "I love this country; so does John McCain." I thought that was important.

I did think he got quite specific -- you can't make the argument that he isn't specific now on some of the plans. There seemed to be more promises than there were challenges.

But I agree with Richard, that he did confront many of those divisive social issues -- abortion, gun control -- he did acknowledge the desire for common ground there, for reasonable, not the traditional, knee-jerk, liberal position on them.

I think he wants to make this obviously an economic election, not a cultural election.

Policy-oriented event for Obama

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What did you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I agree the text was assertive. And it was really an assertive text. I think the policy argument...

JIM LEHRER: Unexpectedly so?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think very tough on McCain, tough on that patriotism point. He really went after -- "We Democrats, we can defend ourselves." That's all in the text here.

And I thought the policy argument was cohesive, and certainly the people who want to critique the Bush administration have a strong case to make.

Nonetheless, as someone who's frequently been wowed by Obama speeches, I was not wowed. I was a bit underwhelmed tonight. And I think that's because he was less emotional. I thought he was more emotionally diffident on every single point that weakened the text in the delivery, and I think that's in part because he's naturally a bit diffident.

But I think it was a mistake to go outside, because the emotional intensity of a packed room was not there. He was separated from the audience, and so he couldn't really feed off them.

The second thing I would say -- and this is true, I think, for a lot of independents -- I thought this was less of a new politics speech than a lot of Obama speeches, more -- and this is going to contradict some of our historians -- more of a conventional Democratic speech.

There was a lot of "we Democrats," "us Democrats." If you're an independent or somebody who sort of is not attached to a party, I think you'll feel a little put off by that.

I also thought it went on a bit too long.

So he gives great speeches. And this, on substance, was a cohesive, serious speech. As a political speech, I think most people will see it as a bit of a disappointment.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Richard, as a political speech, a disappointment?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I don't think agree with that, to be honest with you. As I was listening to this -- and I lost count of the number of times that he mentioned Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- I thought it was actually more than implicit. I thought it was fairly explicit.

You know, earlier this evening, we heard Susan Eisenhower up there. Who was it that nominated Senator Obama yesterday? It was a young Republican.

I mean, I think the subtext of this whole convention has been a desire not just to win an election, but actually to bring about political re-alignment. And I think this speech was part of that.

I do agree with David, as I indicated earlier, this is not speech that will be curved in granite. But you know what? That doesn't matter if he gets to deliver an inaugural address next January.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you, Richard, and to everyone else.

And that does end our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here in Denver. We'll be in St. Paul, Minnesota, beginning Monday, September 1st, for the Republican National Convention. And later in September and October, we'll bring you the presidential and vice presidential debates here on PBS, along with every other network.

Meanwhile, of course, we'll be back tomorrow and every weeknight at our regular NewsHour time and online.

For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.