The National Catholic Review

Barack Obama is the only American politician who can fill a stadium, as he did last night in Denver. By moving the venue from the smaller, indoor arena to the massive outdoor one, he did three things. First, he invited, and received, comparisons with John F. Kennedy who accepted the Democratic nod in 1960 with a speech at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum. Second, his campaign snagged the emails and cell phone numbers of the 84,000 attendees, so Obama has a ready-made group of volunteers in Colorado. Third, he upped the ante of expectations for himself. Did he meet them?

The early responses from the media indicate that he did. The praise was universal, even to the point of tedium. The interviews with men and women on the street and in the stadium confirmed the talking heads’ impression: It was a home run. Me? I gave it a B+ and thought Obama’s speech after losing New Hampshire’s primary remains his best effort. (It was that concession speech which was set to music by will.i.am. and John Legend.) Of course, a B+ by Obama’s standards is probably an A+ for other politicians but I did not think it was one of his better efforts.

Obama hit his strongest notes when criticizing the social Darwinism of the GOP, although evangelicals would have liked it if he used that phrase. He repeated the refrain that the Republicans’ policies created a "you’re on your own" society and contrasted that with the Democratic approach that "honors the dignity of work." He spoke of the waitress who lives on tips but can’t make enough money to take a day off to care for a sick kid. This was an appeal to the better angels of our nature (to paraphrase another Illinois politician seeking the presidency) and Obama is always at his best when he delivers such an appeal. He returned to the Scriptural quote that he invoked in the 2004 keynote address that launched his national career four years ago. "I am my brother’s keeper."

His smartest move was an attempt to preempt the Republican use of wedge issues. He addressed abortion head-on: "We may not agree about abortion but surely we can agree that we need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies." His desire to move beyond the stale and stalled debates in Washington and find some common ground remains the personal quality that most commends him to the electorate at this moment in our nation’s history when 20 years of divisive politics by both parties have left the political class gridlocked and ineffective. Americans have never been as divided one from another as Karl Rove would have you believe, though they have been effectively divided for his electoral purposes. Obama claims he can find or create common ground. Indeed, this is what most distinguished him from Hillary Clinton, the woman who coined the term "the war room" to describe a political campaign’s headquarters.

It was refreshing to hear a candidate begin his discussion of immigration reform by calling attention to the need to defend families and not just to defend borders. "Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers," Obama declared. The raid earlier in the week in Mississippi that netted some 700 arrests in fact achieved precisely this outrageous separation of parents from their children. It is un-American and unchristian and it has to stop. Obama was right to call for that stop.

It will be interesting to see the contrast between the Democrats’ largely uplifting message and what the GOP will display next week. The Dems went after McCain but no one hit below the belt. I suspect the Republicans will not be so reserved when they train their sights on Obama. Nor will McCain be as eloquent. For while last night’s speech may not have been Obama’s best, I confess a tear went down my cheek more than once when pondering the historical nature of the night.

Michael Sean Winters

 

Comments

Anonymous | 8/31/2008 - 1:09pm
I believe that Obama's speech WAS substantive and he clearly stated his intention to provide middle-class tax relief, a ''responsible'' departure from Iraq and his goal to challenge other serious social concerns facing our country. There are issues in our world today that eclipse oil procurement: just wages (yes, even in South America), affordable healthcare, adequate fundamental and higher education, rampant corporate greed, unbridled pollution -- and a true option for the poor. We currently have five Catholic justices sitting on the Supreme Court -- that should be enough to engage the legal system and the American public on the issues of abortion AND capital punishment. We should force our presidential candidates to put aside the ''hot button'' topics that polarize Americans, to address the ''forgotten'' tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, and quit rehashing personal and political attacks that will never lead to productive dialogue. It is time to stop and consider the pain and loss of the truly vulnerable in our world -- whether those women and children live in Iraq or the South Bronx.
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 11:41am
I watched the speech, something I'm not too akin to doing. I thought he looked pretty good and spoke pretty well. He seemed to have a pause now and then in a funny place and the audience seemed to not be able to respond spontaneously due to puzzlement over what he had just said. In other words, his many sound bites(and that's what they were to me) were riddles. As far as content, it seems to me he panders a lot. Panders to every interest. Russian aggression? ''Safe'' nuclear power? ''Unwanted pregnancies'' (yeah, get that enemy)! ''Illegal workers'' - yeah, work is illegal for some. More war in Afghanastan! And, of course, the military - the sacred cow. The list goes on. Seems like he was trying gather in every interest. Will it work? I don't know, but I suspect the Democrats can still lose this one and maybe should just as the Republicans should lose but maybe won't. I shed no tears but for truth and justice.
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 9:44am
I actually got teary eyed listening to Obama. When they were alive, this would also happen to me when I listened to John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. I wish Obama had said more for undocumented immigrants. I live in San Francisco, California which is a sanctuary city. This means that the employees of the City and County of San Francisco do not cooperate with the Federal Government because of its unjust immigration laws. Most of the citizens in this City also don't cooperate with the government on immigration. I wish more cities and states and people did the same thing. In San Francisco helping undocumented men, women and children is a ecumenical effort. Catholics, other believers and non-believers support the sanctuary status that this City has. I hope Obama's speech will help defeat John McCain. Clearly undocumented men, women and children will have a better chance of being treated justly if Obama becomes President of the United States. Michael
Anonymous | 9/2/2008 - 6:41pm
The discussion in the United States about abortion is about one side accusing the other side of not respecting life and the other side accusing the other side of not respecting women. Both sides are lying.
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 7:15pm
I am under no illusions about the law. I grew up when segregation was the law where I lived. The law can be very unjust and the current immigration system is unjust. Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine. He taught us about desires and how they can be unstable This is true for anybody. These desires can lead to abusive behavior. In the United States we abuse our undocumented immigrants for money and power. Being able to be good is often just plain luck because of the our culture's established structures of sin (exploitation, militarism, over-consumption, the wasting of energy, sexism, racism, etc.). We all partake to at least some extent in the imagination and corruption that dominates our society and culture. In New Testament terms, sin is a power which rules over us.
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 4:32pm
This is a stunning comment from a ''Catholic'' news magazine: ''His smartest move was an attempt to preempt the Republican use of wedge issues. He addressed abortion head-on: ''We may not agree about abortion but surely we can agree that we need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.'' Abortion is a wedge issue! Never! Abortion is a true and basic moral issue! Catholics worship at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and view all life as sacred! Pro-choicers worship at the alter of abortion and view life as an individual choice!
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 2:55pm
Speech was inspiring. Obama's charisma reminds me of John and Bobbie Kennedy. I lean Repupublican though, as he's very liberal. Re: immigration comment in your article. True, children should not be separated from their mothers....but there's no law I know of that prevents mothers from taking their children with them when they have to leave the country. Why don't they consider this before they come here illegally? My parents were immigrants, but not law breakers. They came here legally. Laws are put in place for good reason.
Anonymous | 8/29/2008 - 1:34pm
I agree with Mr. Stangle's comment. The speech sounded like a bunch of sound bits put together with no specifics. Especially the line about reducing unwanted pregnancies...what is the standard response of the abortion wing of the Democratic party: more birth control please! How about supporting crisis pregnancy centers so they can support women in carrying children to term! I also felt that given the historical meaning of the day with the first Black nominee for President combined with the anniversary MLK's speech on the Mall, there should have been greater tribute paid by Obama to MLK and other civil rights forebearers for paving the way for him. That may have been a calculated decision by the campaign so as to not alienate the white vote, but I think he owed it to the men and women who have truly suffered for demanding racial justice.