10 years later: Obama's hits and blunders
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and David Nather
July 27, 2014 05:42 PM EDT
Barack Obama’s Democratic National Convention keynote delivered 10 years ago Sunday evening started his journey to the White House.
Those 18 minutes in Boston reshaped American politics. Obama spent a long passage of his speech extolling Democratic nominee John Kerry, but he wasn’t the one whose presidential prospects most people left the Fleet Center buzzing about. Caught by surprise by a convention keynote that was actually worth watching, the crowd went wild. Even Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson were spotted clapping for him.
A decade later, the speech remains a road map to the Obama agenda — and the many places where he’s fallen short in his term and a half so far.
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The parts that hold up well: transitioning from a manufacturing base, the pursuit of enemies (like Osama bin Laden), a cooperative economy, voting rights, solving the “health care crisis,” “a road to opportunity” for the middle class.
But parts come across as the oratorical equivalent of an embarrassing hairdo in a high school yearbook.
The line most associated with the speech — “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America” — is the part that’s probably held up the least well over time.
“The most memorable passage in that speech that he’s not been able to break through on is the real polarized division in the country,” said Robert Gibbs, then Obama’s Senate campaign communications director and later his first White House press secretary. That passage was there from the first draft and stuck around through every round of 3 a.m. emails Obama sent to his small Senate campaign staff.
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But nothing prepared Obama’s staff for what happened next.
“We all read the speech, but none of us was prepared for the reaction it got,” recalls Tommy Vietor, a Senate campaign spokesman who also went on to the White House. “It was powerful on paper, but it was nowhere close to the way he delivered it. … The delivery was pitch perfect, and it was just the right speech for the time.”
Here’s POLITICO’s look back at key lines from the speech that defined Obama and how they’ve held up in the 10 years since:
“Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
Turns out there actually is. And the divisions have gotten so much worse, particularly since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, with the rise of the tea party and the hopelessly gridlocked Congress, that it’s the most famous Obama line you never hear anymore.
“I think he feels deeply frustrated and disappointed by it,” Vietor says. “I don’t think anyone wants to be constrained by partisanship, but there’s only so much he can do.”
But Obama hasn’t exactly backed away from the divide, spending over $700 million after opting out of the campaign finance system in 2008 and then over $1 billion in 2012 in a relentless us-vs.-them push against Mitt Romney.
Try to find a Republican in Washington who thinks he hasn’t been partisan. But to Obama’s team, it’s mostly the GOP that has built the wall of opposition, to the point where they’re convinced many Republicans reflexively turn against anything he supports.
“I’d love nothing more than a loyal and rational opposition,” Obama put it to a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraising luncheon last week in Los Altos Hills, California. “But that’s not what we have right now, and as a consequence we’re going to need change.”
“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?”
That was three years before the Shepard Fairey poster, but these days Obama has returned to the idea repeatedly, telling people, as he did in Los Angeles on Thursday, “Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice.”
Now, though, Obama has to contend with the reality of a hostile, dysfunctional Congress and the limits of falling back on executive actions to get his agenda through. He does it by adding a darker message to his speeches: Washington wants to discourage you, so don’t let them do it.
Back then, though, the pitch was just starting to take shape. He was aspirational. Now he’s weathered. Then, the crowd called “Hope!” back at him when he asked the question in the speech. Now he’s hoping he can still get Democrats inspired for the midterms.
“It’s a quintessentially forward-looking, hopeful vision for America,” Gibbs said.
But it’s also a reminder, five and a half years into his presidency, of how much of that vision Obama hasn’t gotten accomplished.
“The wonderful thing about that speech is that you could give it today,” Gibbs said, though adding, “Anybody and everybody would admit that there are things that are unfinished in that agenda and won’t be finished in his term.”
“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”
Oh, right — the whole surveillance thing. Turns out people hate that.
Obama delivered that line in a very different context — when the issue on everyone’s minds was the Patriot Act and all the other kinds of post-Sept. 11 surveillance being practiced by the Bush administration. Libraries were especially concerned about national security letters, which allow the FBI to issue top-secret demands for records about Americans’ private communications.
In the Oval Office five years later, Obama surprised supporters and allies by maintaining, and in some cases expanding, the Bush-era intelligence apparatus and doing more with drone strikes and kill lists than that man on stage in Boston probably could have ever envisioned.
His private assurances to critics that he’s no Dick Cheney haven’t calmed things, especially with revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance, especially the bulk collection of phone records and even spying on foreign leaders. And one of the main privacy organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the administration has actually tried to expand the powers of the national security letters.
Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in national security and civil liberties, calls Obama’s convention speech “a flashback to that innocent era when our fears about the Patriot Act involved quaint scenarios like combing through library records rather than, say, indiscriminate collection of hundreds of millions of Americans’ telephone records.”
Obama has spent much of the last year and a half talking about how to manage the balance between security and liberty. But even as he has proposed new safeguards on surveillance, he’s telling Americans he needs it to protect the country from attacks, and he’s even defending the NSA people who conduct it. “They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails,” he said in his January speech outlining new limits on the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Obama might have been right about the red states in one sense: Civil liberties-minded Republicans are now some of the fiercest critics of his surveillance policies — particularly Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who’s probably going to run for his job.
“When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they are going …, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return and to never, ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect of the world.”
That line still reflects Obama’s general approach to foreign policy and military conflicts. The two phrases that haven’t exactly aged well, based on the crises he’s dealing with now: “tend to the soldiers upon their return” and “secure the peace.”
Obama talked about the care for the soldiers after mentioning a conversation with a Marine named Seamus, who was about to deploy to Iraq. “I asked myself: Are we serving Seamus as well as he’s serving us?” Obama said. The Marine, Seamus Ahern, later went to work for Obama in his Senate office in Illinois — and is now the director for wounded warrior policy at the Navy.
But what’s happening to the soldiers these days upon their return? You might ask the Veterans Administration about that. Obama set in motion a change of leadership there, but the culture that led the agency to cover up delays in medical care — and punish any whistleblowers who dared to bring them up — is deeply rooted and could take years to change.
Just last week, a modest bill to help veterans get some outside care, and give the VA some basic authority to fire people, nearly fell apart because one committee chairman called a meeting without asking the other chairman first.
And “secure the peace” is not exactly what’s happened in Iraq. Obama was talking about the Bush administration’s failure, in his view, to send enough troops to Iraq in the first place — but now the issue is the growing instability there and the military gains made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“I’m not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will go away if we just ignore it.”
And with that, we have the foreshadowing of Obamacare.
It’s not like health care reform was Obama’s idea alone. By 2004, Democrats were already starting to return to the idea of covering the uninsured, recovering from the failure of Bill Clinton’s health care plan in the 1990s. Kerry would have done it by bringing health insurance premiums down, a plan Obama nodded to in his speech: “John Kerry believes in an America where all Americans can afford the same health coverage our politicians in Washington have for themselves.”
By 2008, however, Obama had to come up with a plan for comprehensive health care reform — in part to compete with Hillary Clinton. He embraced it, then pushed it through with Democratic majorities in Congress over Republican objections. It includes help for senior citizens: more generous Medicare prescription drug coverage, still one of the main selling points Democrats use to talk about the law.
The problem, though, is that Obama used the health care line as an example of a broader point about Americans looking out for each other: “that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work.” In reality, the nation has never gotten over its bitter divisions over Obamacare — in part because many of its opponents are convinced that they’re paying too much to help the uninsured.
“John Edwards calls on us to hope.”
Really, no mention of John Edwards ages well. He’s now the disgraced, philandering ex-politician, but Obama had to sing his praises in 2004 — he was the vice presidential nominee at the time. So Obama did his best.
“John Kerry will be sworn in as president,” Obama declared. “And John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president. And this country will reclaim its promise. And out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.” http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=FD591E7E-C99B-4690-A335-D351FA19825E