Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Obama’s extraordinary speech tackles critics head on

When candidates sit down to write a nomination acceptance speech, they
decide on what boxes to tick. Political commentators listen hard and
interpret the nuanced nods to this social issue or that foreign policy.
What was striking about Obama’s speech tonight was the manner in which
he turned directly and addressed the central criticisms leveled at him.

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When candidates sit down to write a nomination acceptance speech, they decide on what boxes to tick. Political commentators listen hard and interpret the nuanced nods to this social issue or that foreign policy. What was striking about Obama’s speech tonight was the manner in which he turned directly and addressed the central criticisms leveled at him.

First, he had to deal with the charge that he was all style over substance. He confronted this head on and for the first time on the national stage outlined detailed prescriptions for the economy, climate change, healthcare, education, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan such that Slate magazine described the speech as “I have a plan.”

On foreign policy, he needed to confound the notion that he was not ready to be Commander in Chief. He savaged the Republican nominee for his judgement and temperament:

“For while Senator McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats we face. When John McCain said we could just “muddle through” in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell – but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.”

Third, he tackled McCain’s latest attack about his celebrity by explaining at length the hardship that he came from and the sacrifices that his mother made: “I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine.”

Fourth, he had a choice of whether to do what Gore and Kerry before him had feared to do and take on the accusation that he was a closet liberal with one of the most leftwing voting records in the Senate:

“We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America’s promise – the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

This extraordinary speech took place at the Denver Bronco’s stadium. At sporting events, an emotional trough often follows the high after the game as fans discuss quietly the moments that unfolded before their eyes. Not so this acceptance speech. Not so this historic evening in Colordao. Have no doubt that the Obama supporters who chanted his name as they descended from the Mile High heights believed rightly or wrongly that they were witness to history.

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Will Straw

Will Straw is an associate director at IPPR

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