If there were any lingering doubts, Barack Obama removed them last night in Charlotte. Yes, we are going to have a real debate in 2012. And although he was short on details, even as he criticised the Republicans for speaking in generalities, the President used his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party's nominating convention to draw a clear distinction between his vision for America and that of the Republican opposition. Of course there were jabs at his opponent, for example when the President questioned whether someone who offends our closest ally while attending the Olympics is up to the task of negotiating with China, but Obama refrained from the sort of personal attack that has characterized so much of the media-driven campaign to date and chose to focus on his governing ideology.
On the defensive? Not in Charlotte. Instead of apologising for the country's slow economic recovery, Obama embraced his record and recast the achievements of the past three and half years as the first stage of a grand offensive; an offensive to secure a prosperous future for the American middle class. For the first time, he tied the various pieces of his political agenda into a coherent whole.
Health insurance reform was not some new government hand out; it is an indispensable component of a strategy for reigning in health care costs and saving the government's ability to pay for medical services for America's senior citizens and most needy while cutting the federal deficit. Restricting the ability of banks to provide mortgage loans to families who are unlikely to ever be able to repay them is not about regulating the financial services industry; it is all about preventing a future collapse of the housing market and protecting the savings of ordinary citizens. Doubling automobile fuel efficiency standards is not a burden on industry; rather it spurs technological innovation, reduces dependence on foreign oil, and cuts the country's carbon emissions. Climate change, the President argued, "is not a hoax" but "a threat to our children's future."
Whereas the Republicans used their convention to offer a misty-eyed call for a return to a mythical, Norman Rockwell, American past, Obama used his speech to draw a clear-eyed path toward a new progressive era. True, both candidates draw on American values as a guide to policy, but where Romney sees American values as set for all time, Obama sees them as providing enduring guidance in a changing society. Thus Romney promised to honour the institution of marriage as the union of "one man and one woman." Obama championed expanding that institution to American's who just happen to love someone of the same gender.
In a subtle but powerful response to the widespread suspicion that this President is just a little too much in love with himself, Obama returned to his election in 2008 and infused it with a new meaning. "The election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens--you were the change!" And how better to prepare for the presidential debates and Romney's inevitable repeating of Obama's gaff--"If you've got a business--you didn't build that!"--than by listing the accomplishments of his first administration only to tell Americans, "you did that"?
Even as Tea Party Republicans act as if they had cornered the market on patriotism, Obama offered up more than his share of red, white and blue. He twice paid tribute to the sacrifices of America's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, a curious omission from Governor Romney's acceptance speech, and if anyone had forgotten, he reminded the nation that Osama bin Laden is indeed dead. Democrats were once the party of protectionism, yet Obama proudly pointed to the free trade agreements he has signed and the millions new exports stamped "Made in America."
In Charlotte we saw an Obama obviously at ease with himself and his party. It was a picture that stood in stark contrast to the one we saw in Tampa. There Mitt Romney embraced and was embraced by a party to which he no longer really belongs. The heart of the modern Republican Party, if it has one at all, beats in the chest of his libertarian Vice Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan.
If the Obama speech is remembered for anything, I suspect it will be for the full-throated call to a new progressive era. Bill Clinton certainly fired-up the delegates with his point by point rebuttal of the Republicans' charge that Americans are no better off today than they were four years ago, but Obama's agenda has little in common with the Third Way of the Clinton and Blair years. The goal is not to find common ground between the proponents of the welfare state and deregulation. No, this President is reasserting the importance of the state to Western capitalism, and that is a message the Republicans, with Ryan at the fore, do not accept.
So yes, we are having a debate in America.
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