It was his uplifting convention speech in Boston in 2004 that shot Barack Obama to stardom. It was thus disappointing that at his own convention in Charlotte this week Mr Obama was by no means the best of the crop – that distinction belonged to Bill Clinton. Of all the moments for Mr Obama to deliver a flat performance, the official start of the general election was ill-timed.
The US president did offer some trademark flourishes. But they could not make up for the lack of new substance. Following Mitt Romney’s largely content-free address in Tampa last week, Mr Obama had an opportunity to show up his opponent. As it is, both emerge from convention season with question marks over their campaigns.
To be fair, Mr Obama almost certainly had advance knowledge of yesterday’s very disappointing August payroll number in which the US economy added just 96,000 jobs – way below population growth. In light of that, his plea for Americans to be patient and keep their “eyes on that distant horizon” takes on fresh meaning.
The US economy is still struggling to shake off its first balance sheet recession since the 1930s and Mr Obama did his best to explain why these take longer to slough off (Mr Clinton explained that far more vividly). All the more reason then to have laid out in detail what he would do with a second term – and how he would do it, given the poisonous climate in Washington. Alas, Mr Obama missed the moment.
The speech had two main themes: the damage a Romney victory would wreak on America, and a restatement of Mr Obama’s boilerplate goals. Conspicuously absent was any road map to achieve them.
Unlike the original 2008 nomination speech he gave in Denver, Mr Obama’s Charlotte address was longer on fear than hope. A Republican victory would take the US back to an era of unthinking deregulation and large tax cuts for the rich. They would gut investment in education and hand the reins back to big oil.
America thus faced a choice between two “fundamentally different visions” – backwards or forward. Mr Obama only elaborated on the first. There is still another eight weeks to spell out why and how America should boost public investment and raise taxes on the wealthy. There is time also to explain how Mr Obama will bring down the deficit.
Voters were reminded that Mr Obama believed in an America where “if you work hard and play by the rules” you get ahead. By contrast Mr Romney would drag America into a “cold war time warp”. Some of the phrasing was good. But Mr Obama offered little reason for waverers to see him afresh.