Blogging the Beltway: The president had to nail four key points to get an A for his nomination speech.
(The Root) -- On Thursday night President Obama was tasked with delivering the most important speech of his tenure in office. With polls showing the 2012 presidential election increasingly close, many experts intimated that he needed to hit a home run just to stay in the game. Though widely hailed as one of the greatest orators ever to occupy the White House, the president had his work cut out for him. His approval rating regarding his handling of the economy and unemployment recently hit an all-time low. But beyond his approval rating, the president faced three formidable obstacles in his quest to be seen as the king of the convention speeches: his wife, his Democratic predecessor and himself.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver joked in a conversation with The Root that if the Democratic National Convention had ended after Michelle Obama exited the stage, the president's re-election would have been sealed that night. But just when you thought no one else could rev up the Democratic crowd the way she did, the following night former President Bill Clinton captivated the audience and critics -- for nearly an hour. Both were extremely tough acts to follow, but neither is a tougher act to follow than Barack Obama himself.
Since his speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention made him a national star, it has come to be expected that any speech Barack Obama makes will at the very least be a good speech, but more likely will be a great one. It is simply accepted as fact that just as the sky is blue, President Barack Obama is incapable of giving a bad speech, which means the bar is much higher for this president when it comes to convention speeches than it would be for many others. This week The Root interviewed experts regarding what President Obama needed to do to deliver a winning speech. Below is a report card of how he did on four key challenges if we apply the wisdom they shared.
TASK 1: White men are supporting his opponent. He needed to woo some of them back.
The backstory: The president has a problem, specifically a white guy problem. He is trailing his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by nearly 30 points among white men without college degrees, and also trailing among college-educated white males by double digits.
The speech: Every time the president referenced the auto industry in his speech he wasn't talking to car lovers. He was speaking directly to the working class. Many of those blue-collar workers who rely on the auto industry for jobs are working-class white males. His repeated references to manufacturing jobs were a direct appeal to those workers.
TASK 2: Voters like him, but the president needed to convince more of them to trust him, specifically his competence on managing the economy.
The backstory: Polls show voters like him personally but do not like his handling of the economy. He needed to make the case that he has an economic plan that will work if he's given a second term to make it work.
The speech: His convention speech was loaded with references to the economy and jobs with lines like, "After a decade of decline this country created over a half a million manufacturing jobs in the last two and a half years." But while the speech was also loaded with references to continuing down the path of creating more jobs, it was not loaded with many specifics regarding how he will do so.
TASK 3: He needed to throw red meat to the base.
The backstory: According to experts, those most likely to watch political conventions tend to be those most likely to be interested, engaged and active in politics, and for a Democratic convention, that means a number of self-identified Democrats. So since the president was going to be preaching at least in part to the choir, he needed to make sure his sermon, so to speak, had something in it for them. Particularly since many reports have indicated an enthusiasm gap between Obama supporters from four years ago, and today, meaning it is more essential than ever to the Obama campaign to ensure that diehard Democrats are actually motivated to show up on Election Day.
The speech: His many references to saving the auto industry were not only red meat, but the equivalent of a great big old steak for unions, who, after a number of setbacks at the hands of conservatives in recent years, could prove to be even more motivated to play a key role in the presidential election of 2012. His references to his health care plan, immigrants, people of color and "Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control the health care choices women should make" were direct nods to communities of color, progressive activists, pro-choice women and the LGBT community, all of whom have been reliable sources of Democratic support and will need to be again in November in order for Obama to secure a second term.
TASK 4: He needed to reach independent voters.
The backstory: Last election President Obama split white independent voters with Sen. John McCain. The latest polls, however, show the president in trouble with independent voters, who are particularly disappointed in his handling of the economy and are more open to considering a switch this election.
The speech: The challenge, as experts noted, is that by speaking of policies that appeal to the base, you risk alienating independents. Obama's speech opened by hinting that the hope and change he emphasized four years ago -- something that resonated with the very independent voters now disappointed in him -- may have been unrealistically optimistic, an acknowledgment that may win him points for honesty and maturity with this demographic. He talked about working with Republicans on cutting spending -- a nod to bipartisanship, something that appeals to independents. He also peppered his speech with references to not wanting "handouts for people who refuse to help themselves," an appeal to fiscal conservatives. Yet the speech was really not focused on the middle, but on the base.
Blogging the Beltway's average grade for the president's RNC speech: B+
How do you think he did?
The former president’s DNC speech was another milestone in his complex relationship with blackness.
(The Root) -- The same week that a controversial new article landed former President Clinton in the headlines for allegedly making a remark that could be interpreted as racially insensitive about President Barack Obama, the man once described as "the first black president" grabbed the front pages again, for possibly saving the Obama presidency. This week of Clinton extremes sum up President Clinton's relationship with black Americans. You could say that like a lot of relationships, it's complicated.
Should President Barack Obama be re-elected to a second term, his Democratic predecessor -- particularly his convention speech -- will receive some of the credit. In Clinton's convention speech -- which will likely end up winning the award for the longest of the week -- the former commander-in-chief, nicknamed "Bubba" for his down-home, Southern persona, sought to help President Obama with the demographic with which he needs the most help: white men.
Recent polls have President Obama trailing Gov. Mitt Romney among white men with college degrees by 13 points and by white men without college degrees by nearly 30. In other words, President Obama has a serious Bubba gap.
Former President Clinton was speaking directly to his fellow "Bubbas" and making a pitch for the real first black president when he said, "More than 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been created under President Obama -- the first time manufacturing jobs have increased since the 1990s. The auto industry restructuring worked. It saved more than a million jobs, not just at GM, Chrysler and their dealerships, but in auto parts manufacturing all over the country ... Now there are 250,000 more people working in the auto industry than the day the companies were restructured. Gov. Romney opposed the plan to save GM and Chrysler. So here's another jobs score: Obama, 250,000; Romney, zero."
It remains to be seen if his speech will be enough to bridge the Bubba gap, but few white politicians have spent more of their public life trying to bridge the gap between black Americans and white Americans in politics than Clinton has, though his track record shows he has had nearly as many stumbles as successes along the way in his efforts to do so.
Below, a look back at some of Bill Clinton's greatest hits and misses in black history:
Sept. 5, 2012: Former President Clinton delivers a rousing keynote speech formally nominating President Barack Obama as the 2012 Democratic presidential candidate.
September 2012: On the eve of his address before the Democratic National Convention, the New Yorker publishes a report in which President Clinton is quoted as telling the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, "A few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags" during the heated Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama primary battle. The comment is decried as racially insensitive.
Jan. 26, 2008: Following his wife's presidential primary loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama, former President Clinton draws the ire of some black Americans by appearing to dismiss the significance of Obama's win by comparing Obama's campaign to Jesse Jackson's: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."
June 24, 2004: The day of the release of his highly anticipated memoir, My Life, President Clinton signs copies at Hue-Man Bookstore, a Harlem-based bookstore specializing in serving African-American audiences.
July 30, 2001: The former president opens his post-presidency offices, housing the Clinton Foundation, in America's most famous predominantly black neighborhood: Harlem.
Oct. 5, 1998: Celebrated author Toni Morrison dubs him "the first black president" in an essay for the New Yorker. The moniker would stick for years until his wife's campaign against the man running to become the first real black president tarnished Bill Clinton's reputation in the eyes of some black Americans.
April 1993: President Clinton nominates African-American Harvard law professor Lani Guinier for assistant attorney general for civil rights. After a backlash sparked by conservative critics who labeled Guinier one of "Clinton's Quota Queens" for her writing on affirmative action, the president withdrew her nomination, drawing criticism from some in the African-American and civil rights community.
1993: In his first year in office, President Clinton appoints five black Americans to Cabinet posts, the most of any president up until that time. They were Mike Espy (secretary of Agriculture), Ron Brown (Secretary of Commerce), Hazel O'Leary (Secretary of Energy), Jesse Brown (Secretary of Veteran Affairs) and Lee Brown, who served as drug czar, which today is no longer a Cabinet position.
1992-1993: His longtime friend, African-American civil rights activist and businessman Vernon Jordan, leads newly elected President Clinton's White House transition team and plays a key role as adviser throughout his presidency.
June 1992: During his campaign for the presidency, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton blasts hip-hop artist Sister Souljah for her comments about the Los Angeles riots. Clinton's comments were seen as an attempt to distance himself from Rev. Jesse Jackson in a subtle way that would resonate with white voters, since Jackson had invited Souljah and Clinton to a Rainbow Coalition event. The moment coined a still-used political phrase, "Sister Souljah moment," to describe a politician pulling a stunt to distance himself from a person or entity that has become a political liability.
1940s-1950s: Clinton lives with his grandparents, who are among the only Southern storeowners who cater to an integrated clientele. The former president would recall to O Magazine that growing up around black Americans would shape his interactions with them for a lifetime. He said: "My grandfather had a store in the predominantly black area of town. I'd play with the kids and just listen and look. My grandfather didn't have a racist bone in his body, which was highly unusual for a lower-middle-class white man. He and my grandmother were strongly for integrating Little Rock Central High School in the '50s. My grandfather taught me to look up to people others look down on. We're not so different after all.
"Once, a conservative Republican -- a congressman I had a good relationship with -- genuinely asked me, 'Why do black people like you so much?' I said, 'We like people who like us. They like me 'cause I like them and they know it.' "
Blogging the Beltway: From her personal take on struggle to that Tracy Reese dress, some highlights.
(The Root) -- Though there is no official contest for first lady, that doesn't stop the media from covering the unofficial campaign for the role, with first lady Michelle Obama's Democratic National Convention speech last night in Charlotte, N.C., being framed as reply to Ann Romney's RNC address. Yet whether or not a spouse can seriously impact a candidate's chances for election remains a source of debate.
In 2008 Michelle Obama was an object of suspicion among many voters because of some high-profile communications stumbles on the campaign trail, yet her popular husband was elected anyway. Now, four years later, the roles are reversed, with the first lady's approval ratings consistently topping his.
How much of a difference that will make in November remains to be seen, but the Obama campaign is clearly hoping that the first lady's immense popularity will help toward a second term for her husband. This was evidenced by the scope of the convention speech she delivered, which not only focused on illuminating personal details of the Obama family to remind voters who they are but also delved into policy.
Below is a list of the top moments from the first lady's Democratic convention speech.
1. Her biographical video.
OK, so technically this wasn't part of the speech. But if the speech was the main event, the biographical video was the opening act, and what an opener it was. From the beautiful black-and-white official White House photographs to the video montage of the first lady jumping rope, dancing the Dougie with children and owning Jimmy Fallon in a potato-sack race, the video reminded us that we've never had a first lady as fun and relatable before.
2. Her shoutout to the president's glass ceiling-breaking grandma.
By paying tribute to President Obama's grandmother Madelyn Dunham and recalling the sexism and pay inequity she experienced, the first lady paid tribute to women fighting the good fight to break glass ceilings everywhere. Dunham's story of watching men she trained climb past her up the ladder is a story likely to resonate with some of the female voters the Romney campaign spent much of last week wooing, and who will likely decide this election.
3. Her arms.
Yes, this is shallow, but that doesn't mean it's not worth mentioning. Within minutes of the first lady taking the stage, Twitter was inundated with mentions of her envy-inducing arms. A quick sampling: "I'm having arm envy" --@frugalista; "Michelle is protecting our right to bare arms" --@Zoeythegreat; and perhaps my favorite, courtesy of New York Magazine political writer John Heilemann: "Check out them guns on FLOTUS" --@jheil.
Her sculpted arms have been such a source of fascination and admiration since her husband took office that they were even the subject of a New York Times op-ed. But perhaps the greatest testament to the importance of her "right to bare arms": Sleeveless dresses have become all the rage and are ubiquitous these days -- on television, and even among attendees at last week's Republican National Convention. Tonight her arms made their official return to the campaign trail.
4. Confronting the class divide.
How to reference class inequality without coming across as an angry anti-one-percenter with an ax to grind has emerged as one of the greatest communications challenges for the Obama campaign this election season. Apparently the campaign finally figured out how to address that challenge: Michelle Obama.
The first lady's references to her and her husband's humble financial beginnings, including the lines that "Our student loan bills were higher than our mortgage" and "We were so young, so in love and so in debt" -- combined with her repeated references to America being founded on the idea that those who work hard and make it have a responsibility to help others do the same -- didn't sound like class warfare; they sounded like responsible patriotism. Also, by describing her husband's story as the embodiment of the American dream, she drew a stark contrast with Mrs. Romney's description of her family, one in which her father-in-law's story of rising from poverty to wealth may have epitomized the American dream, but not her husband's story of rising from wealth to greater wealth.
5. Her dress.
Though coverage of the first lady's fashion may strike some as superficial, her clothing choices have significant cultural and economic impact. There are few African-American designers who have thrived in the fashion world. Tonight the first lady showcased one who is succeeding, in no small part thanks to Mrs. Obama's prominent endorsement every time she wears one of Tracy Reese's dresses. Because the first lady positively glowed this evening, designer Reese will become known to millions of Americans who may not have been familiar with her before. Not only did the dress look great, but the first lady looked great in it and appeared to feel great in it, too. That confidence showed.
6. Her reminder that no, you didn't actually build it on your own. You had help.
"We built it" was the theme of the Republican National Convention and served as a rallying cry for conservatives suspicious that the Obama administration and the president himself are anti-small business. (The "We built it" theme was in response to a sound bite in which the president referred to the infrastructure and help that aids businesses by saying, "You didn't build that" on your own.) Throughout her speech, the first lady pointedly noted that any successful person, including her husband and herself, was aided by others along the way. As she said, "Teachers and janitors contributed to our success." The takeaway: If you are living the American dream, someone helped you build it.
7. Her candid discussion of her father's health woes.
By recounting her father's battle with multiple sclerosis, the first lady found a personal way to raise the elephant in the room: health care. She also reminded us that multiple sclerosis is a more prevalent ailment than coverage of the disease would suggest, having touched both the Obama and the Romney families. (Ann Romney is battling the disease.)
8. Her close.
The most memorable parts of any movie, book or speech are usually the beginning and the end. When the first lady choked up at the end of her convention speech while talking about her children, there were many who misted up along with her -- surely including some who may not support her husband's policies, but who nevertheless felt a connection with the mom-in-chief tonight.
Blogging the Beltway: She says that will be among her messages when she addresses the DNC tonight.
(The Root) -- When first lady Michelle Obama takes the podium in the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., tonight, among her challenges will be to reassure voters, particularly those who voted for President Obama in 2008, that the leader who sometimes seems to be a little too inside his own head or willing to compromise with his opponents is still connected to the concerns that matter to the American people. Will she go with Ann Romney's approach, countering a detached, corporate reputation with homey details like the pasta and tuna fish dishes the Romneys ate as newlyweds?
"I think my job tonight is going to be to remind people about who my husband is, because even though he's a very likable president, he's been the president, and he's had a very serious role. There are few times when he can really let his hair down, and sometimes it's important for people to remember who this man is in terms of his values, his conviction and his character," said the first lady in a conference call this afternoon with reporters.
"Four years ago millions of people across this country came together and elected the leader they knew would stand up for them in office, and I want people to know that Barack is still that leader. He is still driven by the core values and principles that made him want to do this incredibly tough job in the first place."
During her speech tonight, expect Mrs. Obama to also remind listeners of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and that the first bill her husband signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on equal pay lawsuits -- issues she sees as important to women voters, with whom the president leads in polls over Romney. But such issues don't only matter to women, she insisted. "Women's success in this economy is the key to families' success in this economy," Mrs. Obama said.
Three takeaways from the Republican presidential nominee's acceptance speech in Tampa.
(The Root) -- The final night of a political convention is supposed to be the most predictable. The party nominee comes out, officially accepts his nomination and then delivers a speech that he hopes, at its best, boosts his candidacy and at its worst, doesn't hurt it. Well, the final night of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., turned out to be anything but predictable. Below is a look back at the three most memorable moments and takeaways from the end of the gathering.
1. Romney comes out swinging for the women.
The Romney campaign has been trailing the Obama campaign with women voters by double digits throughout the presidential campaign, a gap that must be narrowed for the GOP to have a chance in November. This challenge was clearly on the Romney campaign's mind, as women were front and center in the candidate's speech, although there was no mention of hot-button issues like the exemption on the anti-abortion plank for incest and rape, which has divided the Republican party -- including Gov. Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.
There were references to numerous women in Romney's speech, in the public arena and in his personal life. One of the most touching moments was when he recalled that his father brought his mother a rose every day throughout their decades-long marriage. In addition to emphasizing the importance of their strong marriage in shaping his own, he highlighted his mother's own extraordinary life and career (she was a candidate for the United States Senate), and added that his wife, Ann, could have had a career if she wanted to, but instead chose to take on a job tougher than his: her work as a stay-at-home mother. This line -- which drew cheers from the audience -- was a direct play for mothers and an attempt to further capitalize on the media frenzy that erupted when Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen said Ann Romney, who has never been employed outside of the home because of her family's comfortable economic status, "never worked a day in her life."
Romney also mentioned that during his term as Massachusetts governor, his lieutenant governor was a woman, as were his chief of staff and half of the appointees in his administration. The takeaway? Romney is not going to give up the women's vote -- or at least a share of it -- without a fight, and he plans to go into battle for them with an army of women behind him, including his wife and Condoleezza Rice.
2. Dirty Harry talks to a chair ... and then keeps talking.
From the beginning of the convention there was buzz about a surprise "mystery" guest who would insure that the Republican National Convention ended with a bang. Rumors ranged from the not so necessarily far-fetched (Sarah Palin, George W. Bush) to the interesting but unlikely (Tim Tebow). So when Hollywood legend turned onetime Republican Mayor Clint Eastwood's name began being mentioned, it was greeted with less shock and awe and more "meh."
Until he took the stage.
I'm convinced that from today on if you look up "unpredictable" in the dictionary there will be a picture of an empty chair ... with Clint Eastwood talking to it. As unbelievable as it may sound, that actually happened on the last night of the Republican National Convention. One of the greatest actors and directors in history spent nearly half an hour talking to a chair that he pretended held the president of the United States. Even more unbelievable is the fact that a serious contender for the presidency, or rather his advisers, thought this piece of performance art was a good idea as the opening act for the most important night of Gov. Romney's career. Granted, I never thought I'd see the day when "Dirty Harry" would be upstaged by an empty chair. But I really never thought I'd see the day when a potential future leader of the free world would be upstaged by one.
3. Romney knows he's not Mr. Likable, so he's aiming for Mr. Fix It.
Every convention features cheesy biographical films on the candidate, his childhood and his family in attempt to "humanize" him to audiences. But for Romney, this proved a greater challenge than for most. He and his advisers know he is never going to be Mr. Personality. But tonight's biographical video did go a long way in humanizing him as Mr. Parent, Mr. Husband and Mr. Decent Guy, while his speech attempted to affirm him as Mr. Guy Who May Have Little Personality But Lots of Skill.
At times, the speech succeeded, particularly when he focused on what his self-made parents taught him about the importance of building success. But in some ways that tactic turned out to be an impediment, because in recalling his parents' early struggles and the fact that they were self-made, it also reminds us that Mitt Romney didn't build that success by himself.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.