Democratic National Convention: President Obama Caps a Star-Studded Night

"You Did This."
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Last week, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's opening act was Clint Eastwood. (And an empty chair.) This week, before he gave his acceptance speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama's opening act was... seemingly everyone else in Hollywood.

There were Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington, bringing some Tinseltown glamour and sex appeal to the podium in Charlotte, N.C. There were musical performances by James Taylor, Mary J. Blige, and Foo Fighters (allaying fears organizers expressed earlier that all the top music stars would be too busy attending the MTV VMAs last night in Los Angeles to play for the president in Charlotte). There was a film about Obama's life narrated by George Clooney and one about veterans narrated by Saving Private Ryan star Tom Hanks. There was a live webcast, hosted by comic actor/former Obama staffer Kal Penn, with guests like Elizabeth Banks. There was even an In Memoriam clip, just like at an awards show, where among the honored Democratic dead was North Carolina native and frequent Obama campaigner Andy Griffith.

And then there was Eva Longoria, dismissing the notion that the assembled stars were just shallow political dilettantes and millionaires with money to burn. In her remarks, the Desperate Housewives star made the connection between the hungry striver she used to be and the millions like her whom she believed would be better served by Democratic policies than Republican ones that allegedly favor only the wealthy. Or, as she put it, "The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy's flipping burgers needed a tax break, but the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not."

Given all the assembled glitz, how did President Obama avoid seeming anticlimactic?

The president had several tough acts to follow: not just the assembled stars, but also the knockout speeches delivered by his wife and by Bill Clinton earlier this week. He had planned to give his acceptance speech in a stadium, like he did four years ago, but weather prevented it, and he had to use the same arena the convention had been using all week. Curiously, playing to a merely huge hall instead of a giant stadium actually made his speech seem more intimate and very much like Clinton's, like a conversation among friends.

He even used some Clintonesque rhetorical flourishes, like when he ribbed the Republicans for advocating tax cuts as the prescription to every ailment. "Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call me in the morning," he quipped.

But compared to Clinton's rambling, largely ad-libbed opus, Obama's speech was tight and focused on a handful of areas (manufacturing, education, energy, national security, and the deficit) that he said his policies would target for improvement. He used the word "choice" and the word "you" an awful lot, as in, "You have a choice" or "You did this," in order to remind voters that they have to power to decide the nation's future, and that they've already effected positive change through their votes. It was a little odd to hear so much "you" and so little "I" or "we," but then, the Repubicans have been hammering the Democrats lately for their emphasis on the necessity of government intervention to make the economy work and help businesses grow. It's no wonder Obama wouldn't want to play into that, but still, if there's any time to say "I" and brag about your accomplishments, it's when you're running for re-election against a candidate who accuses you of having done nothing to alleviate the nation's problems.

Obama may never top the speech he gave at the convention eight years ago, when he was an unknown running for Senate in Illinois, speaking of broad inclusiveness and a non-partisan spirit of optimism (the "hope" and "change" that became his signature themes). Last night, his calls for hope and change were tempered by recognition of practical reality. But then, we're a different country now. We're still wowed by stars (including political stars), but we're skeptical that anyone can fix what's broken, whether it's a self-made man or a desperate housewife.

 

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