Epstein on Obama's DNC Speech

The Preacher-in-Chief
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
September 11, 2012

Last week at the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama delivered two acceptance speeches: one spoken and the other written. The oral presentation was a vintage Obama performance. It had the cadence of a fine homily or sermon. The speaker did not disown his own failures or shortcomings. He admitted them, only to quickly claim that they were small in comparison to those of his heartless rivals in the Republican Party. The crowd responded to his speech enthusiastically. It may not have been Obama’s best live performance, but it still showed that the man had not lost his touch with a sympathetic audience.

But then there was the written speech, which is bland, unfocused, and uninformed. Its excessive use of superlatives and hyperbole suggests that he is deeply out of touch with the world; he speaks of limitless possibilities for the United States at a time when the standards of living have been declining for over the past four years. Sunny optimism may work in good times, but for those who care about content, not cadence, the president needed to introduce a dose of realism into his speech.

The constraints of scarcity are always with us, especially in hard times. Difficult choices have to be made, both individually and collectively, about goods that everyone wants but not everyone can have. To be credible on policy, Obama had to explain that he, as president, knows how to grow the pie, rather than just divvy it up.

Richard A. Epstein