So the DNC gave us a week that got more and more sober as it went on. By last night, we were down and dirty with tough choices and grim policies. Foreign policy dominated the early part of the evening, with a salute to military veterans that had many in my Twitter feed commenting on how strange it was that the parties have switched places. The Republicans hadn’t even mentioned the wars or the veterans; as conservative Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted, “Really was malpractice, and wrong, for Romney not to mention troops in Iraq, Afghanistan in convention speech.” And so for a night the Democrats became the party of LBJ again, the party of a strong military and uncompromising attack. By the time Joe Biden trotted out his bumper sticker line, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” the crowd chanted it with him. How strange was that: a crowd of Democrats cheering for someone’s head on a plate, and for a business bailout? Don’t get me wrong; I understand that both absolutely had to be done. And I understood that it was perfect for the Ohio/Michigan segment of the party. But for a moment you could see the Democratic coalition held together with duct tape, this night only faintly linked up with Monday night’s defense of women’s independence and the freedom to love.
I turned the TV on last night with some reluctance, even though it’s my professional obligation to watch. After two weeks of convention watching, that speechifying cadence is now triggering my gag reflex. I didn’t want one more finger jabbed in my direction; my arms were crossed against any more inspirational personal life stories.
And yet a few moments did crack through. Jill Biden, the Second Lady (who knew there was such a title?), made the ladies in my feed very very happy when she talked about how much she loves her work, how deeply she is a teacher, how working at a community college is who she is. Almost in unison, the ladies cheered: At last, a woman who’s not primarily defined by motherhood! (Check out Libby Copeland’s analysis of why all First Ladies sound exactly alike.) Joe Biden returned the favor in his moment on stage, when he said, “making sure our daughters are paid the same as our sons for the same job must be every father's bottom line.” Yes! Parenting is urgently important for men too!
And clearly, parenthood is a defining identity for Joe Biden, which I have to say I find profoundly endearing, however awkward the man might be. Joe Biden’s introduction video, which, as several tweeters commented, was narrated in a voice so over-the-top that it seemed like an SNL skit. And yet in its midst came Joe telling a story he’s told before:
He said "the longest walk a parent can make is up to a child's bedroom" to tell their child that they can't pay for little league or a chorus because the parent lost their job.
"My dad made that walk. Think how many people have made that walk. They're not looking for a handout, they're looking for a shot," he said.
Ouch. That did choke me up for a minute. As did his follow-up during the speech:
I was a kid, but I can remember the day that my dad sat at the end of my bed, and said, things are going to be tough for a while. I have to go to Delaware to get a new job. But it's going to be better for us. The rest of my life, my dad never failed to remind me--that a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about dignity. It's about respect. It's about being able to look your children in the eye—and say honey, it's going to be okay, and believe it was going to be okay.
That’s what Biden sure does bring home: that the auto industry, and all the rest, are about jobs, and that well-paying jobs are about human beings having a decent life. Here’s how he put it later, when he gave a sketch of what it was like sitting in meetings as the 2009 auto bailout was discussed:
My dad was an automobile man…. I thought about what this crisis would have meant for the mechanics, the secretaries, the sales people who he managed….
When I look back now on the President's decision, I also think of another son of an automobile man--Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney grew up in Detroit. His father ran American Motors. Yet he was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt. It's not that he's a bad guy. I'm sure he grew up loving cars as much as I did. I just don't think he understood—I just don't think he understood what saving the automobile industry meant-to all of America. I think he saw it the Bain way. Balance sheets. Write-offs.
It was a great contrast. And at the same time, how do you listen to that line—“I'm sure he grew up loving cars as much as I did”—without thinking of The Onion’s alter-ego portrayals of Biden? (As one tweet remarked: if they’re not reelected, does that mean The Onion will stop running Joe Biden stories? Noooo!) Side note: The drinking game-players, during Biden’s speech, were watching for his misuses of the word “literally.”
Obama’s speech had its moments. You’ve surely heard about them elsewhere by now. Check out Garance Franke-Ruta’s keen analysis of what she pictures as his war-weariness, exhausted by the office’s responsibilities:
Barack Obama will never be that man again. Whoever he was in 2008, and 2004, Barack Obama will never have his easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm. "I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention," Obama told the thickly-packed crowd at the Time Warner Arena. "The times have changed -- and so have I."
That is the truth at the core of his oddly flat convention speech, and at the center of his technically skilled but strangely bloodless reelection campaign. Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans -- and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.
"I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president," the president said in the later half of his speech, to enormous applause. "And that means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn't return. I've shared the pain of families who've lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who've lost their jobs. If the critics are right that I've made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"
And yet when Obama said "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president”—even though he clearly meant it seriously and soberly—there was a playfulness to it. And it was an electric moment for the crowd: My god, is that possible? We really did elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to run our country! This is our president! That feeling came back, for many, in the usual celebratory moment at his speech’s end, when the first and second families came on stage to display their hugs and friendship. As Rebecca Traister put it in widely-retweeted words, “Sometimes, like now, I look at our president & his family & can't believe I live in this time.” Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) tweeted back, “I had EXACTLY the same thought.”
But I found it difficult to concentrate on the president whom Franke-Ruta calls “war-weary.” The speech cadences overtook the words: swell, swell, dip, crash. It was dry oratory, delivered without passion. He called us to citizenship instead of selfishness. He enumerated policies, as if it were a State of the Union address. He mentioned climate change, thank god. But he didn’t reach us the way Bill Clinton had the night before. Of course, being an ex-president leaves you a lot freer than being the president. Paul Waldman has already given you an excellent analysis of how Obama’s speech was limited by being an incumbent, which I won’t try to duplicate.
Obama told us that yes, we did build that—that being his presidency, and the nation—and by implication, he needs us to get out and build it again. When you remember that Barack Obama’s national career was launched with that soaring speech at the DNC just eight years ago, it’s very odd to think that the DNC’s third night—the one in which he spoke to us—was the least thrilling of the three. So perhaps it’s fitting that there was, in a shocking (cough, cough) break with tradition, no balloon drop at his nomination. Our president was re-nominated with confetti instead. I guess with today’s job numbers, it’s not a balloon sort of moment, is it? Maybe it’s best to leave the inflating and deflating to the Republicans.