Cool, tough, focused. Obama was a man ready for action

In his speech to the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama dispensed with his usual rhetorical flourishes, choosing instead to put flesh on the bones of his manifesto as he explained why John McCain was the wrong man for the White House. By Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent US

Maybe it wasn't quite his greatest speech ever. Barack Obama has long since set the bar so high that even he on occasion falls short of the summit. Convention acceptance speeches moreover – even one in a football stadium with a firework show to rival the Beijing Olympics – rarely linger in the memory, such is the gathering flood of the political season. But on Thursday evening, the candidate did what every Democrat craved. He set out what he planned to do, laid into John McCain, and looked like a President.

Someone said the set at Invesco Field looked like the backdrop for a Greek tragedy – though in fact it seemed designed to evoke the colonnaded walk in the White House Rose Garden, just behind the Oval Office where, all being well, Obama will be plying his trade from 20 January.

Most certainly however, the figure on stage was no tormented Orestes from the pages of Aeschylus, driven mad by the gods after he murdered his mother and her lover. This was the new leader of the Democratic party, a cool, tough and focused young man utterly in command of events, making the case why he should become the 44th President of the United States. And by and large, he succeeded.

The occasion of course could not escape the label "historic." How could it have been otherwise given that the 84,000 present, and the record 40 million watching on TV, were witnessing a black candidate for the first time accept the nomination of a major party, on the exact 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's most famous speech.

The candidate never referred to Dr King by name, only to a "preacher from Georgia" at the end of the speech. The instant that captured the sheer extraordinariness of the occasion came immediately after, when the family of the nominee to the most powerful job on earth traditionally join him on the stage. Except that this time, unbelievably, it was a black family. Normally, Obama transcends race. At that moment, it was the other way round. That image will linger for ever.

Obama had been under mounting criticism from party activists, increasingly uneasy as John McCain pulled level in the polls. The candidate was not combative enough, they complained. He was squeamish about taking the fight to his opponent. Obama seemed too cool, too cerebral, too elitist. He could not connect with poorer white voters. He might be a magnificent orator, they said, but he was woefully short on specifics (even though the Obama website shows he has enough policy proposals to keep think-tanks busy for years).

These complaints had to be addressed, and Obama did so. The soaring oratory was limited to just a few minutes at the end of a 45-minute speech, whose leitmotif was a sustained assault on McCain. Obama made his case simply and forcefully. The choice was between the future and the past, change and a failed status quo. The Democratic candidate pinned his opponent to the unmissable target of George W Bush.

Obama knows as well as anyone that a fight about the character of John McCain is a fight he can't win. On the war hero's command of everyday issues however, it is another story. A theme of this convention has been that while the 72-year-old Republican is admirable, he is too old and out of touch to be President. Obama piled on: "I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know."

This Obama was spoiling for action. His opponent might pride himself on his judgement, he declared, but what sort of judgement was it to support the desperately unpopular President in 90 per cent of his Senate votes?

Even on his supposed inexperience in foreign policy and national security matters – an issue which Republicans will hammer unceasingly between now and November – Obama threw down the gauntlet, pointing to McCain's long advocacy of the misconceived war in Iraq. "If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgement to be the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have." In Bush language, "Bring 'em on."

On policy details, Obama did not disappoint. Taxes would be cut, he promised, for 95 per cent of working families. He set a 10-year target to "end America's dependence on oil from the Middle East", helped by a $150bn investment in new sources of energy. He pledged to pour money into education, and introduce health care coverage for all.

Less convincing was how he proposed to pay for these promises – by removing tax cuts for the rich, closing loopholes and ending programmes that did not work. If he wins, in an era of rising deficits this problem will haunt him. On a euphoric evening, no-one bothered with the fine print.

But what happened to the original pied piper Obama, who at the start of the primaries caught the nation's imagination with his call to bridge the divide between red Republican and blue Democratic America? At times that Obama too was on display.

He spoke of personal responsibility, a standard Republican theme, and eschewed knee-jerk liberalism on abortion, God, and gays. On gun control, for instance, he said ownership was fine, but that AK47s should be kept out of the hands of street gangs.

Such sweet reason will probably be drowned out in the campaign. In the long run such compromise was the only way forward but for now, he recognised, many would dismiss it as "happy talk." His speech could not be described as happy talk. He has been criticised for being too serious.

Certainly he lacks the gladhanding, aw-shucks appeal of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Probably "straight-talking" John McCain, with his knack of intimacy would be a more agreeable bar companion. But Obama looked and sounded like a President in waiting, with the spine and steel required for the job. These are desperately serious times for America – and serious times demand serious leaders. On Thursday evening, Barack Obama showed himself to be one.

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