Obama’s speech was a strategic masterwork, framing the 2016 presidential election and perhaps the next generation of political power for future Democratic dominance, all while Donald Trump kept sputtering about how Russian intel should break into our stuff.
With an affable, inspirational tone, Obama grabbed massive swaths of political strategic territory from the Republican party, territory that it took the latter decades to carve out. This isn’t Bill Clinton triangulating welfare reform and tough-on-crime rhetoric while GOP candidates made the exact same proposals; Obama claimed political positions and overall tone that have been utterly abandoned by his political rivals.
Most of all, Obama straight up stole Ronald Reagan’s theme that, hey, this is a great nation. He proposed that even if it doesn’t always feel like it, even if we don’t always act like it – this is a great country built on great values. Lemme hip all y’all Millennials – when Reagan said this exact same stuff in 1980, it was far from an obviously true statement. Inflation was nuts. A mortgage ran you 14%. Unemployment sucked. We were barely out of Vietnam, barely post-Watergate, just sort of stumbling through discotheques on quaaludes and wondering if Russia might bomb us. Carter told us, “Hey turn down your thermostats,” and then the Iranians stormed our embassy. It was kinda dark. And out came the helmet-haired one and said, “This is a great nation, and you are great people.” Reagan started a renaissance for the Republicans because he was sunny even when things seemed insurmountably difficult. Obama didn’t quote this, he didn’t rhyme with it – he straight up stole.
Obama judo flipped another Republican theme of Small Government versus Big. Seizing the Donald’s charismatic fascist statement that “only he” could solve our problems from the top elected office, Obama pushed for *small* government from the level of mayors and attorney generals and dogcatchers. One party proposed big government solutions, the other proposed trusting the American people. Only this time, the script got flipped entirely.
Back in the 1970s, there was a certain fatalism in the Democratic Party with regards to national security. Carter’s people had gone for “détente” with the Soviet Empire, giving up on any grand victory or sweeping moral narrative. Reagan showed up like a mix of (his contemporaries) John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart and said, “We’re good, They’re evil, and We’re gonna win!” The voters responded, boy did they ever. And again, Obama straight up stole this vision of strength, promising that instead of cowering to some buncha kooks with boot knives and gunpowder and shitty readings of religious texts, Hillary Clinton was gonna drone their asses! You know, like the two of them did to Osama bin Laden! And even while he delivered this line, he didn’t seem angry, just potent and matter of fact. Kinda like Reagan did.
Then there was the new stuff: two sitting male presidents in the same room being actively self-deprecating and admitting before the world that this woman was their SUPERIOR, not just their peer. (And that line, “Sorry Bill…”, such virtuosity in the light touch) And Donald Trump’s name itself was treated like the footnote of history it deserves to be, only with extra humorous disdain. For the first time in memory, however, Obama lightly tied together fascism, communism, jihadism and homegrown demagoguery right with the name of the GOP nominee. Light touch, devastating implications.
Obama just positioned the Democratic Party as the party of sunny patriotism, local governance, and cheerful competence, alongside its big tent for women, different ethnicities, immigrants, different sexual orientations, and general optimists.
Strategically, this move is tectonic.