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'Underwhelming' speeches by Obama, Romney: plenty of words, few new ideas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 8, 2012 - WASHINGTON – At last week’s Republican convention in Tampa, presidential nominee Mitt Romney’ highly touted acceptance speech was upstaged by actor Clint Eastwood’s rambling, ad-libbed conversation with an empty chair.

This week in Charlotte, President Barack Obama – oft admired as an orator – delivered remarks that fell short of the widely praised speech of his Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, who made the more cogent case for Obama’s re-election.

Both Obama and Romney gave what most analysts credit as solid but underwhelming speeches – with neither candidate offering many new ideas for America’s future, and substituting platitudes like “Americans have a choice” and “our challenges can be met” for clearly-defined initiatives.

To be sure, Obama sketched his agenda for recovery. But nearly every proposal cited – creating new manufacturing jobs, cutting $4 trillion from the deficit, doubling exports and reducing oil imports – he had mentioned before. And, in some cases, the White House had failed to gain their approval by the divided Congress, which could become even more hostile next year if Republicans take over the Senate as well as the House.

As for Romney, he did indeed propose “a plan” to create 12 million new jobs. But critics say the plan’s elements consist entirely of GOP staples: cutting taxes and the deficit, increasing energy production, signing new trade deals and providing for greater school choice. Not to mention repealing Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations.

In fact, an analysis of social media response to Romney’s speech by a GOP-leaning communications group found that the most-cited line in Romney’s speech had to do with what he would not do: "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet … My promise is to help you and your family.”

Obama’s brief response on Thursday night was a lukewarm statement on the reality of global warming that cited only previous initiatives: “my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet -- because climate change is not a hoax.”

Aides say both acceptance speeches were meticulously written and rewritten, with the White House even vetting some lines through focus groups. Perhaps that caution was the problem, because -- as many commentators pointed out -- neither speech seemed to attain the soaring resonance of remarks delivered by other speakers at the same two conventions.

Obama and some Democratic strategists like to compare this year’s campaign to the successful 1936 re-election campaign of President Franklin Roosevelt, who defended the not yet effective New Deal against his GOP opponent, conservative, small-government advocate Alf Landon.

Saying that he won’t “pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy,” Obama told conventioneers Thursday that “it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”

But the parallels to 1936 don’t extend to the acceptance speeches of FDR and Landon, which were far tougher – and more specific – than the comparatively tepid rhetoric this year’s candidates delivered in Charlotte and Tampa.

Parallels and contrasts with 1936

On the day FDR took office in March 1933, nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed and the stock market had plunged by 85 percent from its high point before the 1929 crash. FDR had defeated President Herbert Hoover, a small government, free market advocate who said the election represented a contest between “two philosophies of government.”

Taking advantage of his mandate, FDR launched an intense array of New Deal government programs that one historian wrote was “unlike anything known to American history.” But even FDR’s famed “100 Days” of initiatives – from the bank holiday to the farm relief program – had failed to bring the country out of the Great Depression. And Landon and other Republicans argued vehemently that it was time to try another approach.

In his acceptance speech in Philadelphia, FDR – declaring that “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob” – defined and denounced his political enemies. He said he relished the opposition of big banks, monopolists and other business interests who had, during the dozen previous years of Republican rule, begun to consider the federal government “as a mere appendage to their own affairs.”

“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” Roosevelt said to thunderous applause. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

And FDR – challenged by Republicans “who, silent about their own plans, ask us to state our objectives” – ticked off a long list of programs and goals for his second term, including hiking wages, ending child labor, wiping out sweatshops, halting business monopolies, backing collective bargaining, cheaper electricity, lower interest rates, sounder home financing, flood control, farmer aid, regulating securities and providing more security for the elderly.

“In 1932 the issue was the restoration of American democracy; and the American people were in a mood to win. They did win,” Roosevelt said. “In 1936 the issue is the preservation of their victory. Again they are in a mood to win. Again they will win.”

But Roosevelt’s opponent, Landon, took aim at what he viewed were the outlandish and expensive failures of the New Deal, the sharp increase in government debt, and the shackling of American business and free enterprise. 

"Judged by the things that make us a nation of happy families, the New Deal has fallen far short of success,” said Landon. “The record shows that in 1933 the primary need was jobs for the unemployed. The record shows that in 1936 the primary need still is jobs for the unemployed.”

Making a similar argument against Obama – whose first term’s achievements didn’t come close to matching those of FDR’s first 100 Days – Romney told delegates in Tampa that, on Election Day in 2008, “Hope and Change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

In a plea for giving American business the tools to forge its own recovery, Landon -- the popular governor of Kansas -- argued that “we must be freed from incessant governmental intimidation and hostility. We must be freed from excessive expenditures and crippling taxation. We must be freed from the effects of an arbitrary and uncertain monetary policy."

Landon continued: "Once these things are done, the energies of the American economic system will remedy the ravages of depression and restore full activity and full employment.”

Romney’s criticism of Obama in Tampa also objected to the direction his administration has taken the country. “The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction.” Romney said. “He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business. Jobs to him are about government.”

In an argument that echoes some of this year’s GOP criticism of Obama, Landon added that “crushing debts and taxes are usually incurred, as they are being incurred today, under the guise of helping people — the same people who must finally pay them. They invariably retard prosperity and they sometimes lead to situations in which the rights of the people are destroyed.”

Capping his lower-the-deficit plea, Landon said: “Our party holds nothing to be of more urgent importance than putting our financial house in order. For the good of all of us, we must re-establish responsibility in the handling of Government finances. We must recognize that a government does not have an unlimited supply of money to spend.”

Somewhat similar to FDR – but far more understated – Obama on Thursday night defended the idea that “government can do good.” That, of course, contrasts to traditional GOP thought expressed cogently by Ronald Reagan’s stump-speech line:  “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

FDR had delivered a powerful defense of government intervention in his ’36 acceptance speech. “For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government. The Nation looked to government but the government looked away,” FDR said of his GOP predecessors. “Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent.”

The FDR delivered his big applause line: “For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.”

Obama, pilloried by Republicans for his administration’s emphasis on bailouts, the Affordable Care Act and other federal programs, steered away from a Rooseveltian endorsement of intervention. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems, but we don’t think government is the source of all our problems,” Obama said.

He told conventioneers in Charlotte that the election presents “the clearest choice of any time in a generation ... a choice between two different paths for America ... two fundamentally different visions for the future.” The Democratic vision, he said, is one in which “everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street.”

For his part, Romney is betting that Americans who don’t feel better off now than they did in 2008 will support him in November. In Tampa, he said “every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction: ‘you are better off today than you were four years ago.’ Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president.”

Romney added to cheering Republican delegates: “This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that YOU are better off today than when he took office.”

In 1936, Americans accepted FDR’s stance and he won by a landslide – nearly 61 percent of the popular vote and the electoral votes of all but two states, Maine and Vermont. That’s not going to happen this year, when most pundits predict a close election. And if Obama wins reelection, he might take a page from FDR’s 1936 rhetoric:

“I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match,” Roosevelt told delegates. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”