I have been trying, for the past week, to write Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, without much success. And now we’re down to the wire.
Don’t worry, the Obama campaign isn’t waiting on me. It’s just something I do.
Four years ago, I wrote George Bush’s acceptance speech for the GOP convention. The President chose to give a different speech, and even though I think my speech was better, and even though he wound up winning with his approach, I still don’t really hold it against him.
I didn’t have a lot of interest in writing McCain’s speech because I think we all know what it will say. It would be an exercise in pure mimicry or it would have nothing to do with reality.
But Obama has proven very difficult for me. I’m still not entirely sure why, but here are a few reasons.
First of all, I just have less experience with his voice. When I wrote that speech for Bush, I had been listening to the President for four years. His actual speechwriters still had an advantage over me in terms of familiarity with the speaker, but not a huge one. Obama I have only heard speak occasionally, and never live. And reading speeches doesn’t accomplish the same goal as hearing them read.
Second, I’m a registered Republican, and I’ve been at least moderately marinated in GOP rhetoric for years. I know how GOP acceptance speeches go, what themes they’ll hit, and how they’ll hit them. I worry that, if I reach into my rhetorical pouch for some Democratic rhetoric, what I’ll pull out is more like a parody thereof.
Third, Obama’s not a typical Democratic nominee, because he’s positioned as a reform Democrat rather than a lunch bucket Democrat – “wine track” rather than “beer track” – and the only nominees I can think of who fit that mold (Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis) are not folks I’d want to be copying. Of course, every race is different, and I’m not by any means suggesting that Obama is doomed because he’s perceived as a reform Democrat. But it does make speechwriting harder. If I were writing a speech for Hillary Clinton, I think I’d have a better idea where to start. But Obama’s big speeches come basically in two modes: airy and soaring is one, and cerebral and analytical is the other. I thought his race speech was really quite impressive, but a speech like that would be a disaster as a nomination acceptance speech.
Fourth, Obama’s black. I’m not, and no Presidential nominee has ever been. I may be self-conscious about my writing for him because of that in ways that he himself would not be – or my may lack self-consciousness about some aspect of the way he needs to speak that he is very self-conscious of. Example: if I give Obama a bit of populist anger, do I run the risk that he comes off as an “angry black man” – and if I don’t, am I flinching from what he needs to do out of fears that he would come across like that, where he would know how to deliver such a speech without pushing those buttons? Who knows?
Fifth, and I think this is the most important I still, at this late date, have no idea why Obama is running. I mean, I know why: he wants to be President. He’s “got game” – you don’t need more reason. But Obama has done a rather astonishing thing: he’s built an entire movement – he’s built a fundraising and organizing machine comparable to a national political party, in fact – without really standing for anything in particular. He is not, as George McGovern was, running to take the Democratic Party decisively to the left, nor is he, as Ted Kennedy was, running to restore a certain kind of liberalism within the Democratic Party, nor is he, as Bill Clinton was, running to transform liberalism into some kind of new, Third Way synthesis. Apart from his position on Iraq, he in no way distinguished himself from his rivals as representing a particular faction or even a particular worldview within the Democratic Party or the tradition of American liberalism, and Iraq he has forcefully maintained was a matter of his personal good judgment rather than an indication that he thinks about foreign policy profoundly differently from the Washington consensus. Obama has been attacked from various quarters for running a personality-based campaign, all about his own innate wonderfulness and ability to magically bind up all our political wounds and so forth. And while it’s certainly true that Obama has his lunatic supporters who think he’s the messiah, I think the real reason he’s perceived this way is that, lacking an animating cause, the candidate himself perforce became the cause. And that’s a huge problem because, in the end, a majority of voters is simply not going to vote for Obama on the basis of his innate wonderfulness.
Obama, unfortunately for him, has built himself a bit of a box. He needs to do some contradictory things tomorrow night to get out of it. He needs to establish himself as “Mr. Democratic Party” because the Democratic Party is still divided, and also has much better party ID numbers than it has had in ages. But he needs to hold on to those who were originally attracted to him because he appeared to represent a reform agenda. He needs to make the case for himself as the right agent of change. But he needs to (with good humor) deflate some of the ludicrous messianism that has swirled about him during the campaign. He needs to sound angry on behalf of hard-working Americans without sounding like an angry person. Most important, he needs to re-frame the election as a choice between him and McCain rather than a referendum on Barack Obama, but without undermining his reputation as someone pursuing a “different kind of politics.” And he needs to do all these contradictory things while also providing an organizing theme for his candidacy that has been lacking to date.
I’m not sure the speech that follows does the job. You tell me.
Thank-you, thank-you. I am humbled and sobered by my fellow Democrats for the honor you have extended me. And I accept your nomination.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, as a campaign, as a party, as a country, to get out of the hole that George Bush and John McCain have dug these past eight years. And I’m eager to get to work. But one thing I am very glad of is: I won’t have to work alone. And before I get into detail about the work that has to be done, I want to take a moment to thank some of the people who brought us this far.
I want to thank Mayor John Hickenlooper for giving the Democratic National Convention such a warm welcome in what a lot of folks might think is hostile territory here in “red state” Colorado. Of course, John’s a Democrat, so maybe Denver’s not so “red” as all that.
And I want to thank Governor Bill Ritter for his extraordinary hospitality as well. If course, he’s a Democrat, too. Come to think of it, so is Senator Ken Salazar of this fine state.
And the next Senator from the “red state” of Colorado? He’s a fellow by the name of Mark Udall, and you know what? He’s a Democrat, too.
So I want to thank the people of the great state of Colorado, not only for welcoming our party and our campaign and all the volunteers who put in so much hard work to make this convention the success it has been, but for giving America such a great group of dedicated public servants, and showing America that there really are no red states and blue states, but one United States, colored red, white and blue.
I want to thank Governor Mark Warner, the next Senator from the state of Virginia, for his keynote on Tuesday. You watch that guy. Bill Clinton gave the keynote address in 1988, and four years later he was President. I can’t seem to recall who gave the keynote four years ago. Anyhow, I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Mark Warner.
I want to thank President Bill Clinton for his speech on Wednesday. You’re going to hear a lot from the Republican Party and the McCain campaign about how you can’t take a chance on electing a Democrat, that we can’t go back to the days when we had a Democratic President. And, you know, I see their point. Inflation under 2%. Unemployment at record lows. Median real wages rising for the first time since the 1970s. The stock market at an all-time high. I mean, who’d want to live through that again?
And I want to thank my rivals for this year’s nomination. One of them is now my running mate, Joe Biden, a born fighter, and I thank him in particular for his passionate address on Wednesday. But honestly, if I filled my cabinet by drawing on the incredibly deep pool of talent our party displayed in this nomination fight, I’d have one of the strongest cabinets our country has seen. Actually, I’m not sure where I could put Bill Richardson; he’s held so many cabinet posts already, he may be overqualified at this point.
And I want to single out Hillary Clinton for special thanks, for her gracious and powerful speech on Tuesday, but more than that, for all she’s done, throughout this campaign and throughout her life, for our party and for America. Hillary Clinton has already changed America by her historic campaign, and I have no doubt whatsoever that her greatest days are ahead of her. For all that she has done and will yet do, I thank her, and my two daughters thank her.
And I want to thank all of you – I told you I’d come around to it – all of you, who have worked so hard and are still working so hard on this campaign, to bring change we can believe in.
My fellow Americans, every four years the Democratic and Republican candidates stand up and tell you this is a crucial election, and America cannot afford to make the wrong choice. John McCain’s going to say it next week. And I’m going to tell you the same thing today, because I believe it’s true.
But there’s a more important truth that I don’t want us to lose sight of. When we weigh our hopes and our fears about the future, we shouldn’t forget: we’re talking about America here.
We’re talking about a country that won two world wars and the Cold War. That survived the Civil War and the Great Depression. That split the atom, landed on the Moon, and unraveled the secret of the double helix. And that has remained a free Republic for two hundred and twenty-one years.
America’s even going to survive eight years of President George W. Bush – less than five months to go – through bungled wars and economic and natural disasters, because of the strength and character of the American people. And that’s the most important truth, more important than the results of any one election.
I’m a Christian, and so I see God’s miracles all around me, but I don’t believe any man can work miracles. And neither did the men who founded this great nation of ours. They did not set out to make heaven on earth. They set their sights on something more simple: a more perfect union. Not perfect: more perfect.
And in every generation, in every election, that is what the American people have sought: a more perfect union. More free. More prosperous. More true to the ideal upon which it was founded, that all men are created equal.
That’s what I want. That’s what I wanted when I was a young man in Chicago, trying to do my small part to help poor tenants and laid-off steelworkers get control of their lives and pull themselves back up into the middle class.
That’s what I wanted when I was an Illinois state senator, working to bring downstate farmers and upstate industrial workers together to make our state’s economy work for all its citizens, and to bring the police and the criminal justice system together to establish procedures to ensure convictions are fair, and that they stick.
That’s what I wanted when I opposed the war in Iraq before it started, a war I knew would pull this country apart right when it had come together, and that would set back the war on terror rather than winning it.
Our country is headed in the wrong direction. But it won’t take a miracle to turn this country around. We didn’t get into the mess we’re in because we were led by men who hated their country, nor because the American people are a nation of whiners as one of my opponent’s top advisors said.
We’re where we are because we’re going the wrong way, following the wrong people down the wrong road.
There’s an old story Ronald Reagan – a President my opponent admires greatly and whom I, you might be surprised to hear, have said a few good things about as well – an old story he used to tell about a fellow who brings his son to a psychiatrist, saying, my boy is an incurable optimist, and I’m worried about it. I want him to get a more realistic outlook on life.
So the psychiatrist tells the boy he’s going to give him a present. He brings the boy into a room to get his present, and presents him with an enormous pile of manure. But the boy doesn’t look disappointed. In fact, he jumps on the pile and starts digging like mad.
“What on earth are you doing, son?” the psychiatrist asks. “That’s a pile of manure!”
“I know!” the boy answers, “and it’s so big, I figure there’s bound to be a pony in there somewhere!”
It’s a good joke, isn’t it? I know I already mentioned I’ve said kind things in the past about President Reagan, but I don’t think I’ve ever given him due credit for being a good joke-teller.
But after eight years of George Bush, don’t you feel just a little too much like that boy on the pile?
We’ve been digging for eight years now, and we just seem to be getting deeper in something I won’t mention.
And there’s a candidate in this election who’s running on a platform of: keep digging.
Eight years ago, candidate George Bush accepted the Republican nomination, and he said about the Democrats: “They had their chance. They have not led. We will.”
Well, now they’ve had their chance. And we have certainly been led. But where have they led us?
They have led us into the worst domestic financial crisis in more than a generation. Today, house prices are dropping nationally by more than 15% year over year, the worst performance in the housing market since the Great Depression.
For most Americans, their one and only home is their most precious asset, the place where they tuck their kids in at night and also the repository of their savings. And now, millions of middle-class Americans are facing the nightmare of foreclosure. Whole neighborhoods are at risk of unraveling, one empty house standing lonely beside another, breeding crime and despair.
Democrats in the Congress proposed legislation to stem the tide of foreclosures, and preserve middle-class neighborhoods at risk. And what was John McCain’s response?
He said the government should limit its response to institutions that pose a “systemic risk” to the financial system.
Now, Senator McCain knows how to engage in straight talk when it suits him, so let me spell out what that means.
An investment bank like Bear Stearns, where bankers and traders made millions in bonuses by buying and selling mortgages without regard to risk? If they should fail, that would pose a systemic risk to the financial system.
A family of five living on $50,000 per year, about to lose their home because their mortgage payments have just gone way up? I’m sorry, they don’t pose a systemic risk. They’ll have to get by on their own.
Now, that might make sense if you think that investment bankers are what drive the American economy, and not the workers, consumers, and homeowners of the great American middle-class.
But it doesn’t make sense to any of the Americans I talked to on the campaign trail, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in Nevada, in Wisconsin, in Virginia, in Ohio, in Colorado.
I’d like to ask my opponent: if we lose the great American middle class, and let the American dream slip away for the next generation, where will the savings come from to power that great financial system we’re all worried about?
But, more important, if those are our priorities, what will happen to government of the people, by the people, and for the people?
We live in a world of extraordinary economic and technological change. And that change is bringing great benefits, to America and to the world. The rise of China and India is pulling hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty, and it a more productive planet is good for America as well.
But not all of the consequences of these changes are benign. If we are to take advantage of the opportunities before us, we need to change as well. And our government plays a role.
Over the last eight years, the median American wage-earner has actually lost ground. People are working harder than ever, earning less than they were eight years ago, while the price of food and fuel and health care skyrockets.
This is not a simple problem, and there are a lot of different good ideas about how to address it.
We need to create a nation infrastructure fund, to address the enormous backlog of investment required to bring our transportation infrastructure up to date, and to provide millions of high-paying jobs.
We need to invest in retraining for employment in the industries of the future.
We need to enforce our labor laws, so that workers can organize to fight for their fair share of their productive labor.
We need to raise the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a proven strategy to keep hard-working Americans hanging on to the bottom rung of the ladder from slipping into poverty.
And we need to cut taxes where it counts: on small businesses and startup companies that are the engines of innovation, and on working families that are paying a higher and higher percentage of the total tax burden even as their real wages have gone down.
There’s no shortage of good ideas out there for how to help America’s working families, and make the American economy work for the American people again. We’ve been looking for those ideas all through the campaign. And it’s funny, you know: when you get up each morning trying to find solutions to problems, sometimes you find them.
So it is particularly impressive that John McCain has hit on a strategy for making it worse.
He plans to cut taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers, while raising taxes on the middle class.
Some of you out there probably think you didn’t hear me right, so let me say it again: John McCain’s plan raises taxes on the middle class.
He doesn’t advertise that, of course. Part of his tax plan is a modest income tax cut for lower-bracket taxpayers, so that’s the part he talks about. You’ve got to do a little digging to find the tax hikes. But they’re there.
Right now, most Americans get their health insurance through their employer. And if the employer contributes to their premiums, that contribution is not subject to tax.
John McCain would change that. He’d start taxing middle class families for the health insurance they get from their employer. The tax hike is big enough that, by one estimate, a typical couple earning $40,000 per year could pay more than $1000 more in taxes by the end of McCain’s first term.
Now, you ask my opponent why he’s doing this, he’ll say: to solve our health-care problem. He’s just leveling the playing field between people with insurance and people without. And he’s got a point: he’s just decided the way to do it is to bring those who do have health insurance down to the level of those who don’t rather than the other way around.
It’s amazing. And you know next week, you know what they are going to say. It’s our party they are going to accuse of waging class warfare.
We have got to solve the problem of health care in America. We are spending more per capita than any industrialized nation, and we’re not any healthier for it. For poorer and even middle-class Americans, we’re actually less healthy. And we’ve got nearly 38 million people who are uninsured.
Americans know they are getting a raw deal from the health care system as it exists. And they are ready for change. And it’s not just folks who are struggling without insurance who are ready. Go talk to any manufacturer and they’ll tell you, they are getting killed by the cost of health insurance.
Universal health care is a dream deferred for far too long, and there is only one party and one candidate in this election who is committed to making that dream a reality, and it is not John McCain.
Sometimes the choice really is that simple.
We have a fundamental choice in this election. It is a choice between a politics of division and a politics of addition. It is a choice between an America focused on seizing the opportunities of the future and an America obsessed with the quarrels of the past. It is a choice between a politics of fear, and a politics of hope.
That contrast is apparent in the way we have campaigned. It is apparent in issue after issue that the American people care about. But nowhere is the contrast more apparent than on the issue of energy and the environment. Nowhere is it so clear how thoroughly the last eight years have been squandered. And nowhere is it clearer that John McCain offers more of the same.
In the first year of his administration, John F. Kennedy declared: America will go to the Moon. “We do these things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Eight years later, Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind. America had met the challenge.
The preeminent national security challenge, economic challenge, and environmental challenge of our day is our dependence on imported oil. Oil is what connects the conflict in former-Soviet Georgia with the pinch at the pump in Pennsylvania with the failing fortunes of Detroit’s auto makers.
We import more than 60% of the oil we consume, and we import most of that from countries that are unstable or actively hostile. Every day, we are putting money into the pockets of regimes that do not wish us well.
And what has the Bush Administration done with its eight years? How have they met this challenge?
With war and threats of war that drive up the price of oil, and with tax breaks for oil companies already sitting on a gusher of profits.
And what does John McCain propose?
More of the same.
If we are to rise to this challenge, and secure American independence, it will take a full-spectrum response.
We need to invest in breakthrough clean energy technologies, and promote sustainable use of our domestic resources of oil, coal and natural gas.
We need bring on line new sources of electricity, and step up our efforts at conservation.
We need to crack down on speculation that increasingly dominates the commodities markets and provide tax incentives for energy efficiency.
And above all, we need to implement a market-oriented carbon-trading program that will harness the economic efficiency of our great system of private enterprise to drive down emissions 80% by 2050, and eliminate once and for all our dependence on foreign oil.
We used to be a leader on these issues. Now, we are not even a follower. We are simply out of the game.
And the Republican Party of George Bush and John McCain? They seem to be proud of that fact. They actively mock people for trying to address this vital threat, to our security, our economy, and the health of our planet.
They talk about America “going alone” because we have abandoned the fight against global warming, abandoned the fight for a post-petroleum economy. But we are not going alone. We are going with Saudi Arabia, with Venezuela, with Nigeria, with Russia.
Those are our companions on the road we are traveling now.
It’s time to turn the car around. It’s time to turn this country around.
This is not just a matter of environmental protection, not just a matter of economic well-being: it’s a matter of national security. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, every national campaign has begun and ended with the question: will you keep America safe. Well it’s time to take a look at the hole we’ve been digging here, too.
If we do not address our dependence on fossil fuels, we cannot win the war on terrorism.
If we do not bring the war in Iraq to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion, we cannot win the war on terrorism.
If we do not rebuild our alliances, and restore our place as a global leader, we cannot win the war on terrorism.
What are the fruits of our current approach?
Iran has been enriched by the enormous rise in global oil prices. If it wishes to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is better able to afford it than ever before. And America’s diplomatic isolation makes it exceedingly difficult for us to apply effective pressure on the Iranian government to renounce any such ambitions in a verifiable manner.
North Korea has gone from being a near-nuclear state to a state our own intelligence agencies believes may have produced as many as half a dozen nuclear weapons. The failure of our strategy is so manifest that the South Korean government is now making direct overtures to China as the more reliable partner to address their volatile neighbor.
The Taliban has regrouped in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and, from their new base, has begun to expand both in Afghanistan and deeper into Pakistan, taking advantage of our underfunded and undermanned presence in the former and the weakness of the undemocratic government we relied on in the latter.
The war in Iraq has drained our treasury, weakened our alliances, and stretched our armed forces perilously thin, giving more opportunity to those who would take advantage of our distraction to do us harm.
We set out to isolate and defeat those who opposed us. Instead, we have isolated ourselves. And John McCain promises to isolate us further.
This campaign has been criticized for being “all words.” But you have to know, a President’s words have consequences.
When a President jokes about military action, it has consequences.
When a President threatens to expel a country from an international body that we do not control, it has consequences.
When a President implies an obligation of support for another country where none has been agreed, that has consequences.
And when a President implies a lack of regard for previously expressed commitments, that has consequences.
Not long ago, I went to Iraq to see for myself what kind of progress was being made on our efforts in that country. The mission, as I saw it, was to leave the country standing reasonably well on its own legs, and then leave it, to free our armed forces for vital missions elsewhere, and to fulfill our commitment to that country that we were there to protect its freedom, and not to determine its future.
Before leaving, I believed that a clear timetable for drawing down American forces would help build confidence in our mission in Iraq’s vital center, and make a safe and effective withdrawal more possible. My opponent took the opposite view.
And while I was there, the President of Iraq announced that he supported my approach.
Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me if we are in Iraq to enable the Iraqi government to stand on its own, and the Iraqi government tells us that they can stand on their own, that we ought to be able to take yes for an answer.
And, after a few weeks of grumbling, even the Bush Administration came around to my point of view. It’s taken John McCain a little bit longer.
I do not fault John McCain so much for his support for the Iraq War, because that support was widespread in Washington and he supported that war for noble reasons. You might have had to be outside of Washington to see how tragically mistaken the premises for that war were.
But it is past time – well past time – we reminded ourselves what our mission in Iraq is. We are not fighting in Iraq in order to stay. We are fighting in order to leave – and leave behind a stable, responsible and self-sufficient regime.
Let no one doubt that I take seriously the threats to American security that exist. But taking those threats seriously means prioritizing among them, weighing possible courses of action, taking advice from military and diplomatic officers, and making decisions based on sound judgment.
We are not doing what we need to do to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban in Central Asia. I will change that, and make winning our first war – the war against those who attacked us on September 11th – a renewed priority.
We are not doing what we need to do to prevent and roll back the spread of nuclear weapons. I will change that, and make control of nuclear material and technology – the only way to ensure against the ultimate nightmare of nuclear terrorism – a renewed priority.
We are not doing what we need to do to wean ourselves off imported oil. I will change that, and make energy independence a renewed priority.
We are not doing what we need to do to ensure our armed forces are properly equipped and trained, and that our military spending is properly aligned with the threats we currently face. I will change that, and make readiness a renewed priority.
My opponent, Senator John McCain, is an honorable man and a genuine American hero. We should all be glad to know that, in the worst case, America will still be led by a great patriot and a man of principle.
But a man of principle, a man of great personal courage, can still have principles that are wrong.
President Bush is not a bad man. I admire many things about him. His devotion to his wife and daughters. His sincere and humble faith. His comfort with people from all walks of life.
He’s not a bad man. He’s just a very bad President.
It’s time we made a different choice.
President. That is the office that Senator McCain and I are contending for. That is the choice the American people have to make.
You know, when this country was founded, it was not contemplated that candidates for the Presidency would campaign. And, in fact, there was no campaigning until the creation of the Democratic Party.
Thomas Jefferson, the founder of our party, understood something about governing a Republic that his opponents, the Federalists, missed.
If “we the people” are to be the source of authority, if the government is to serve us rather than we it, then we need to be engaged in the business of politics. We must be led by men – and women – of good character, but we can’t rely on their virtue to be enough to ensure our interests are taken care of. We need to be involved so that our interests are known, directly.
That’s why he founded America’s first mass political party. So that the government would serve the people, not just in an abstract sense, but in reality.
I’ve talked a lot in this campaign about the need for change, but I also used a phrase that has been much misinterpreted.
“We are the change we are waiting for.” That’s the phrase.
“We are the change we are waiting for.”
What does that mean?
It means that this campaign is not about one man’s ambition or one man’s dreams. This campaign, most fundamentally, is about democracy itself. And the awesome responsibility for preserving it rests not on the shoulders of one candidate or even one party, but on we the people.
If we are going to preserve this incredible achievement of American democracy, we have got to remain involved, as an active citizenry. We cannot – we must not – rely on one election or one man to make the difference. We have to do it, and keep doing it, day by day, year by year, generation following generation.
Forty-five years ago today, a great American leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a historic speech. It was a speech about a dream, but not one man’s dream. It was a dream of a new nation, reconceived in liberty, and truly dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
That dream was not all America’s dream forty-five years ago. But with every year and every generation, it became more and more of America’s dream.
The arc of history is long. But it bends towards justice.
And this campaign, by bringing millions of Americans into greater involvement with the needs of their communities and their nation, will play a small part in bringing that dream closer to reality.
On November 4th, we end the Bush/McCain chapter in our nation’s history. We stop digging this hole and start building up our country again.
But this campaign does not end on November 4th. It goes on, to preserve our democracy, and ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people does not perish from this earth.
We are the change we’ve been waiting for. Let’s stop waiting.
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.