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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT