Biden's Plain-Spoken Genius

Joseph Biden's speech last night accepting the Democratic nomination for the vice presidency was not a great speech. The rhetoric did not take wing and soar, the assembled delegates did not leave the arena slack-jawed and astonished. It was a workmanlike address, a blunt object delivered, at times, with great force. In many ways, it was the opposite of Barack Obama's best speeches. This may be exactly what the Obama campaign needs.

Biden spoke of his family, but unlike Obama, he did not enlarge them into themes. They did not stand in for racial progress and simple dignity and the power of our quiet commonalities. Rather, he shrunk them down to kitsch, rendering them -- and him -- recognizable and human in the process. Detailing his mother's loving encouragement back when he stuttered, he recalled her saying, "Joey, it's because you're so bright you can't get the thoughts out quickly enough." That's not the story of America; it's the story of your grandparents.

Similarly, his attacks on John McCain were neither grudging nor high-minded. They were simple. "In the Senate," said Biden, "John has voted with President Bush 95 percent of the time. And that is very hard to believe. And when John McCain proposes $200 billion in new tax breaks for corporate America, $1 billion alone for just eight of the largest companies, but no, none, no relief for 100 million American families, that's not change; that's more of the same." This was not a speech built to inspire, or elevate. It was a message crafted to move polls.

It is becoming standard to say that John McCain won the summer. Obama may have led easily in the late spring while the McCain campaign evinced a continual sense of panic, but McCain has now pulled nearly even in the polls and seems comfortable with his chosen line of attack. And no wonder. Reporting from a focus group of undecided voters, Joe Klein writes that the McCain campaign's attacks are working, or at least that the Obama campaign's charms have worn off. The attendees made it clear that "change as a theme is over. Obama's rhetoric has begun to seriously cut against him. 'No more oratory,' one woman said. 'Give us details.'"

If the voters really just wanted details, Obama's campaign would be blessed. Obama has more details than the campaign, or anyone else, knows what to do with. But that's not what the voters want. Rather, voters are using details as a stand-in: What they want is to trust that Obama is more than just glitz. Over the summer, McCain managed to paint Obama as a hollow fad -- exciting for the kids, maybe, but nothing for serious adults to take notice of. McCain managed to do that by referencing the very qualities that make the Obama campaign: the overwhelming enthusiasm of its supporters, the glamorous carriage of the candidate, and most of all, the soaring rhetoric of Obama's greatest speeches. All of this has fed into a broader effort to sow doubts about Obama's core commitments. Obama does not look like most voters, and he certainly does not talk like them, or appear to share the struggles of being a frail and fumbling individual in an oft-unforgiving world, so how can they be sure he really cares about them?

This is, for the Obama campaign, more of a problem than it might appear at first glance. The campaign is not, as some of its detractors have charged, "just words," but it is heavily reliant on words. It was words, after all, not legislation or personal heroism or family connections or higher office that catapulted Obama to the forefront of the national conversation. It has been words Obama has turned to when his campaign was under duress, kickstarting his candidacy in Iowa with a scorching performance at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner and refashioning the provocations of Jeremiah Wright into a dialogue about racial healing with his speech in Philadelphia. But McCain has potentially turned the nature of Obama's rhetoric -- the very thing that Obama uses as protection from attacks -- into a weakness. Now the very mechanism that shielded Obama's candidacy threatens its health.

McCain's strategy will pay its particular dividends this week. He has made Obama's greatest strength into a possible liability: He has taken his words away from him.

All of which makes Obama's speech this evening a dangerous event. The better of a speech Obama gives, and the more striking the visual of 75,000 attendees screaming their approval in unison, the more it could play into McCain's argument. Obama, of course, should not be underestimated: It may be that the power of his oratory is stronger than the traps John McCain has set. But then, it may not be.

In some ways, the declining effectiveness of Obama's oratory may be attributable to more than just McCain. During the primary campaign, the Democratic candidates were so near to each other on policy that the only grounds for competition was oratory. Unable to win the primary through the differences unearthed by argument, Obama realized he could win it through the enthusiasm generated by excitement. But in the general election, Obama is substantively further from McCain, and the voters are substantively further from Obama. They do not start with trust and seek only inspiration. They need first to be persuaded into trust.

In this, Obama could learn from Biden's address. What he needs is not for viewers and attendees to find him uplifting, but for them to find him convincing. They should leave the speech more aware of their disagreements with John McCain's agenda, and more persuaded by the merits of Barack Obama's leadership. Tomorrow, in front of 75,000 Democrats at Invesco Field, Obama might be better off taking a page as much from Biden's best speeches as from his own. Tomorrow, he could benefit from a speech that isn't so much great as it is effective.