The Limits of Incumbency and the Politics of Spectatorship

At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now.

To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into a deep yearning among all Americans but particularly among liberals. Here's something I wrote about it at the time:

What's so compelling about Obama's best speeches is that they make you feel as though you are actually a part of history. Older generations didn't doubt that they were: they or their loved ones fought in wars, they suffered through the Depression, and they generally felt as though the momentous events of their time were things everyone experienced together. The last generation to feel this way -- the baby boomers -- may not all have gone to Vietnam, but those who grew their hair long or listened to a Hendrix album can look back and say they were participants in the country's transformative era. (This may explain why boomers are so relentlessly nostalgic: Their own coming of age, a time we are all likely to look back on as particularly meaningful, came at a tumultuous and weighty moment for the nation.)

But if you were born in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, history probably isn't something you participated in, it's something you watched on television. You watched America's all-volunteer military invade a succession of small countries (Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq...) but never worried about you or your brother going to fight, unless it were by choice. The most significant event of the second half of the 20th century -- the breakup of the Soviet Empire -- happened on television, too. When a world-changing event took place on American soil, most of us watched it on the tube. And what did the people who were actually in lower Manhattan on September 11 say? Over and over, they told journalists, "It was like something out of a movie." They could only relate it to their experience as spectators.

Again and again, Obama tells people that they are more than just spectators.

Let's take a look at a brief portion of what may have been the best speech Obama gave that year, on the night of the Iowa caucus. In it, he referred to "you" doing things over 20 times:

Particularly if you happened to be in Iowa, but even elsewhere, Obama could plausibly say that "you" participated in that momentous event, and that you will participate in its ultimate fruition on election day in November. Even if you weren't out knocking on doors for the campaign, maybe you gave him twenty bucks, or put a bumper sticker on your car, or posted on Facebook that you were a supporter, or had a conversation with your uncle about why you liked Obama. And at a minimum, you knew you were going to participate by voting. But now it's four years later, and what have you been doing?

The answer is, probably nothing. You've watched in various states of hope, worry, relief, disappointment and disgust as the grind of governing wore on. Even if you've been engaging in some form of political action, it's seldom as romantic as a campaign and the questions are as prosaic as "How can we get Ben Nelson to vote for cloture on this bill?", so it winds up feeling like a distant game in which you aren't much of a player. In other words, chances are you've reverted to being mostly a spectator.

Which brings us to last night, and how Obama tried to convince people that they're still participants. Let's look at this passage, where Obama once again focused on "you":

When Obama says "you did that," what is it that you did? You elected him four years ago, and the result was a lot of good. And that's true. But it's miles away from saying that you actually did the things are so meaningful—passing health care reform, changing deportation policy, ending the war in Iraq. What it means is that you elected him, and he did those things while you watched. He can say "you did that," but for most people it won't really feel true.

This isn't a condemnation. There were parts of the speech that I thought were great. In particular, the section about citizenship was terrific—it's something that's seldom talked about, and it makes a necessary contrast with the Republican perspective that seems to say that nobody has any obligations to anyone else or to the country. But when you're a challenger, the election itself—the thing people can most actively participate in—feels like the whole point, the vehicle of our national deliverance. When you're an incumbent, on the other hand, you can't escape the understanding that the election just gives the opportunity for more hard, unpleasant work to begin, and it's that work that comes after election day that really matters. Which means you know that for the really important stuff, you'll become largely a spectator once again.

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