Obama Lets Others Outshine Him in Charlotte

Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton delivered speeches that outshined the president, and there was a lot of God-talk. What was the political message?

SHREWDLY CELEBRATING: President Barack Obama shrewdly let his wife Michelle shine at the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/Newscom)

Democrats nominated President Barack Obama for a second term at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, but the consensus among pundits was that his wife Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton outshone him in their speeches. Was his by design a more modest speech than those he delivered in 2008 to reflect the chastening of the economic crisis that has defined his tenure? It sure seemed so, as he compared himself to Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt and quoted Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go”?

Speaking of nowhere to go but God, there was a tussle Wednesday afternoon over the fact that the word God initially didn’t appear in the Democratic platform this year. A line about Jerusalem being the perpetual capital of Israel disappeared as well. Just before Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie prayed the invocation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had to ask three times for a floor vote to amend the platform to reinsert these references. Then, Villaraigosa clearly overrode a divided final vote to affirm the changes, which gave the Democrats their own Clint Eastwood moment.

Plenty of speakers talked about God, however, including United Methodist pastor and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missiouri), who went off-script Wednesday and began preaching a passionate mini-sermon. “Hope is the motivation that empowers the unemployed. … It is our hope and faith that moves us to action,” Cleaver shouted. “As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, Mr. President, hope on!”

Speaking of shouting, the convention opened with a lot of that Tuesday, most notably from Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker. “It is our most fundamental national aspiration – that no matter who you are, no matter what your color, creed, how you choose to pray or whom you choose to love, that if you are an American — first generation or fifth– one who is willing to work hard, play by the rules, and apply your God-given talents, that you should be able to find a job that pays the bills,” Booker yelled as he introduced the party platform.

As to the platform itself, support for same-sex marriage was included for the first time and language about keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare” is gone. The drumbeat championing “choice” over Republican oppression of women’s bodies resounded from the first speaker to the last. Juliet Lapidos of The New York Times noticed and so did Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for The National Catholic Reporter. In a column at CNN, Winters said the Obama campaign has given up on courting moderate, white, working class voters who are primarily concerned about the economy. Instead he is “re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve.” Even Comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show produced a bit about the party of inclusion not being so inclusive when it comes to gun-toting, God-fearing, anti-science Evangelicals.

New York City pastor and councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) told CBN News that he was at the convention to debate the platform change regarding same-sex marriage. “I see myself as a reformer, and I’m hoping that we can put enough pressure (on the party),” Cabrera said. Other Christians were there to offer non-partisan prayers. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzieRev. Gabriel Salguero, and Blood:Water Mission founder Jena Lee Nardella were among those offering a sweet aroma of prayer amidst the partisan preaching. And Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus delivered a short but impassioned speech about the potential dangers of Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “immoral budget” and why “our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another.”

As to those stunning speeches delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s was notable for its passion and clarity and for the heart-warming story of the Obamas’ humble beginnings, but also for the fact that Mrs. Obama’s autobiography excluded any mention of her ever having held a job. Instead she described herself as “Mom-in-Chief.” Clinton’s was widely regarded as being so far above others in its rhetorical skill and specificity that even right-leaning pundits conceded he gave Obama the boost he needed, which brings me back to my original point, and that is that the president may not be Bill Clinton, but he is a shrewd politician nonetheless. Just ask Hillary.

What do you think?

What were the high points and low points of the Democrats’ big party?

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.