Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's DNC Speech: The Meaning, The Moment, The Plan

Some are calling it the "I Have a Plan Speech".

On the last day of the unprecedented 2008 Democratic National Convention, before a record crowd of 80,000, 47-year-old Barack Obama accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party.

And while Obama set about the task of presenting his blueprint for America, a nation looked on - with our on eyes fixed expectantly on INVESCO field, our souls reaching
back 45 years to a monumental day at the Lincoln Memorial, and our feet planted tenuously on history's unchartered territory.

There was no sense in avoiding the obvious, and no one - certainly not the DNC - tried.

We heard it in Jennifer Hudson's gospel-tinged rendition of the National Anthem that recalled Mahalia's March on Washington serenade. We read the history carried in the legacy of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who addressed this crowd as he had done 45 years ago at the nation's capital – that last living person to have done so. We two-stepped to the grooves of an era - from Aretha to the Supremes to the Staple Singers - and stood for the remarks of the descendants of a King.

We breathed in moving images in tribute to the to a fallen prophet.

And so the historical symbiosis led to a fragile balance of commemoration and campaigning. Bracketed by carefully selected musical preludes, generals, senators, everyday folk and a Vice President made the case for their candidate as the program inched closer to the moment that, for many, had to be seen to be believed.

Incredibly, we heard words that many never expected to hear from an African American: "With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.”

For some, the well-worn footpath of Shirley Chisholm, and yes, even that of Jesse Jackson, now seemed exalted. For others, the near coming-to-pass of Robert Kennedy’s prophecy, and the lost promise of his brother’s legacy, drenched the scene.

It was, in the words of Rep. Lewis, “a down payment on the fulfillment” of Dr. King’s Dream.

But Obama’s campaign seemed to realize, finally, that a nation's memory of the Dream in not enough. Perhaps they truly recognized that the unresolved, deferred hopes of the past weren't laying enough track to get his train to the White House. So the candidate did something that would crystalize this moment not just in America's cultural history, but in the 2008 Presidential election.

He defined himself. He defined his campaign.

And not a moment too soon.

After weeks of the increasingly familiar Rove-ian tactics that have been battering at Obama's door, the Democratic nominee - no longer "presumptive" in any sense - took the battle to McCain's 'hood.

First pointing to the strained economy and a difficult set of wars, Obama began gingerly, asserting that "America" was a "...better country than this".

In another move, Obama dismissed McCain’s claims of independence from Pres. Bush before he undermined his opponent's "street cred" and awareness of the concerns of average Americans.

"It's not because John McCain doesn't care," Obama ventured after plowing into McCain's proposed tax, health care, and education plans, "It's because John McCain doesn't get it".

Then Obama rebutted attempts to paint him as a celebrity - most notably indicated in a much talked about commercial - by emphasizing a modest background and upbringing and his history as a community organizer. "I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead," he continued pointedly, "but this has been mine."

And then - more directly than he had ever done in a nationally televised speech - he laid out a plan for the “change" he's been promising a significantly skeptical public.

Anxiously urging the crowd to "Listen, now" as quickly as he might have done in a church basement, he unfurled a roster of policies - on taxes, energy, education, health, finance, and national defense - and proposed a combination of tax reforms and budget tightening to foot the bill.

He argued for individual responsibility among fathers and families – a risky move that had apparently tempted Jesse Jackson to consider castrating him - before dropping the gauntlet on McCain's candidacy.

"If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have."

Hoping to woo new converts, Obama then turned to hot-button conservative issues.

He made the case for the democratic party's willingness to defend the country and lampooned John McCain's commitment to resolving issues in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell," he jabbed, "but he won't even go to the cave where he lives".

And then he took the scuffle directly to McCain's house.

Obama made the case for a departure from the "same partisan playbook" at least twice, all but ridiculing McCain himself for using "stale tactics" to obscure a flimsy record and making "a big election about small things".

Wrapping up the right-wing pitch, he argued that so-called liberal and conservative views on gun laws, Gay & Lesbian civil rights, and immigration law could be mediated with “the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

A solid knockout, the crowd's roar seemed to indicate.

And the candidate rubbed his rhetorical knuckles and returned to his rallying refrain of hope, acknowledging his unlikely candidacy and stressing citizen political empowerment.

"What the naysayers don't understand," he continued, is that this election has never been about me. It's about you”.

“[At] defining moments like this one,” he stated moments later, “the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington”

He invoked the "American promise" and conjured the words of "a young preacher from Georgia" who "spoke of his dream". Then, urging that the "destiny" of "people of every creed, color, from every walk of life "was inextricably linked, he spoke the words of the towering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though he never spoke his name:

" we walk, we must always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

For so many in the arena whose eyes watered with the weight of the moment; for those watching from homes, parks, auditoriums and fields across the nation, overwhelmed by the history of the moment; and for those citizens who will never see the speech - across the United States - the words couldn't be truer.

Because if America is to move forward, we can't continue to be consumed with detangling the troublesome web of the past or looking for a prophet's return. A candidate can't ride in on the shoulders of the ghostly, unfinished business of the sixties.

We can't - to borrow the phrase of a DNC-focused activist group - "Recreate '68", or '63.

And why would we want to?

For all of the fearsome power of the moment we witnessed - for all of the vindication it offered for so many martyred mothesr and fathers, for all of the vivid promise it affirmed for the progress of a complex land, and for all of the meaning it had for a nation that must always remember –

We don’t need a replay.

We need a Plan.

[See Slate's "I Have A Plan" piece here]
Photo Credit: CBS Images

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