July 28, 2004,
Boston, Mass Barack Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic Convention here has gotten a rapturous critical reception, justifiably so. Here are a few more follow up points about it:
NATIONAL UNITY. His litany in which he made the simple phrase "there's a United States of America" a rallying cry of unity and togetherness was simple and powerful. Most of the unity rhetoric this week has had a false ring, especially coming from people who have done more than their share to divide the country. Obama's call seemed more deeply felt and was more resonant, wrapped in patriotism: "We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." Subliminal message: We are not the party of Dukakis we like pledging allegiance.
HAWKISH NOTES. He made this week's best, most trenchant criticism of the Iraq war, saying we should "never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect the world." The criticism reflects a hawkish attitude: We need more troops. It invokes the opinion of the world but also with a hawkish tinge: The world should respect us, because when we confront an enemy we do it right.
"AN AWESOME GOD." The emotional high point of the speech may have been his declaration that "We worship an awesome God in the Blue States." He thus rebutted the notion that the Democrats are the secular party, and did it in authentic, unashamed language. The theme of faith was woven throughout the speech, from near the very beginning when Obama talked of "a faith in the simple dreams of [America's] people, the insistence on small miracles." This is language that Democrats often can't muster, and it gives added oomph to two other key themes from the speech.
"MY BROTHER'S KEEPER." Democratic social programs often seem mushy or purposeless or pandering. Obama connected them with one of the deepest of all ethical imperatives to love our neighbors as ourselves: "It's that fundamental belief I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper that makes this country work." This is a liberalism with some emotional depth, and a meaning much more profound than the dollar signs next to line-items in a federal budget.
"THE AUDACITY OF HOPE!" We've heard a lot of talk of how important it is for the Democrats to be optimistic. But the optimism of forced smiles and focus-grouped phrases can be a wan thing indeed. Obama's optimism was expressed in the language of faith. When he talked of "the audacity of hope!" he was reaching for something inside the breast of every religious believer, and connecting with the audacious hope that has fueled heroic American projects, from the nation's very founding to the civil rights movement.
For all of these reasons, by the end, when Obama said "the people will rise up in November," and "this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come," it seemed more than garden-variety political rhetoric. Because it was.