Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama speaks to Americans as adults

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: President Obama's speech was strong on policy, weak on memorable themes
  • Obama deconstructed GOP positions well and emphasized edge on foreign policy, he says
  • Avlon: It was a sober and serious address, and he didn't promise miracles

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- One of the mysteries of this administration is that President Obama is a great orator, but not always a great communicator, and we saw that dichotomy in effect again last night in Charlotte.

In a season of platitudes, his convention speech was admirably strong on policy specifics but weak on memorable themes.

He made a values-driven case for continuing on a difficult path toward rebuilding the great American middle class, but did not offer new details on just how we would achieve those goals in the next four years.

John Avlon
John Avlon

He successfully deconstructed the Republican plans as simply being more of the failed same -- "Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!" -- but didn't offer a strategy for how the two parties would work better together in a second term.

And where Bill Clinton's speech was focused on centrist swing voters, President Obama's address seemed aimed at the party's base, rocking the convention hall, but losing something in translation over television into living rooms across the nation.

The speech contained some clear declarations of difference between the two parties. A close read showed Obama, as always, rhetorically refusing to accept old terms of debate: "We don't think government can solve all our problems. But we don't think that government is the source of all our problems." Instead, Obama sees a country balanced between rights and responsibilities, the individual and the community working together to make life a little better for us all. He believes passionately in the ability of government to make a positive difference -- and that is not socialistic, but realistic.

Obama soared when talking about foreign policy, driving home the inexplicable failure of Mitt Romney to mention Afghanistan in his Tampa convention keynote. The paragraphs on Osama bin Laden and the rebuilding of ground zero achieved elevation.

The president ticked through a list of promises kept, offering data points on our decreased dependence on foreign oil over the past four years, and a goal of 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of his second term.

CNN Reality Check: Obama's promises
King: Obama and Romney's favorability
Carville: Obama's speech not best at DNC

He also belatedly embraced the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission as a starting point to reduce the deficit and the debt, something he notably failed to do in his first term.

But if this was a sober and serious address, it was also a refined version of his stump speech; there was little new and no overarching narrative arc to make this high-stakes political speech truly stand out from the pack. The White House said this would not be a State of the Union-style address, but there was a telltale laundry-list quality at times. Both Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton -- and even possibly Joe Biden (!) -- offered more seamless inspiration speeches. In contrast, this felt like a speech written by committee.

Perhaps best that can be said of the speech, and this is not a small thing, is that President Obama spoke to the American people as adults last nights. He did not promise miracles, but instead steady improvement if we continued to work together, taking the nation in a better direction, one ironically more rooted in mid-20th century values, but better suited to the inclusive reality of American life in the 21st century.

It's too soon to tell if any individual lines of this speech will endure. President Obama sometimes seems allergic to sound-bites as a point of pride. Lines like "Killed bin Laden; Saved G.M" roll off Biden's tongue, ready for a bumper sticker, but they almost seem too easy for the president and so the pitch is never hit.

But the closing lines of the address achieved real momentum and encapsulated President Obama's argument: "America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth."

Or, as the new Bruce Springsteen anthem that closed out the convention more concisely said: "We Take Care of Our Own."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT