Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama speaks to Americans as adults

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
September 28, 2012 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT