Amazin' Obama

On an historic night, in an extraordinary setting, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday with a masterful address that was at once deeply personal, politically pragmatic and fiercely pugnacious.

The first African-American in history to lead the national ticket of a major party, Obama spoke on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's iconic "I have a dream" speech to a crowd of more than 85,000 screaming supporters in a Denver football stadium on the final night of his party's convention.

More importantly, he addressed millions of American voters watching on television who still know little about him, confronting directly the attacks made on him by Republican foe John McCain and strongly making the case that he is qualified to lead the nation.

"Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land: enough!" Obama said, looking directly into the camera. "This moment, this election is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive.

"Because next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third," he added. "And we are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On Nov. 4, we must stand up and say: 'Eight is enough.'"

Obama's unconventional convention speech, which you can read herepresented both his biggest opportunity and greatest risk to pass the threshold test for becoming president, by crafting a comprehensive argument to voters about why he is running and what he would do in the White House.

Although known for his talent for soaring oratory, Obama was more practical than poetic last night, as he delivered a comprehensive 44-minute address that simultaneously sought to present his own narrative about who he is and what he believes; to put forth specific policy proposals to define his broad message of change; and to answer charges from the McCain camp about his character and patriotism.

"I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain," he said. "The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America, they have served the United States of America.

"So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first."

Obama's speech wove together three fundamental themes:

1) Identity and values Over the past month, the McCain has erased Obama's lead in the polls by hammering him relentlessly with TV ads and attack lines that have tried to define him as too inexperienced, egotistical and elitist to understand the concerns of average Americans. Last night, Obama moved to counter these negative images of him, which polls show have begun sinking in among voters.

He reprised the story of the "brief union" between his Kansas mother, who raised him, and his Kenyan father, whom he barely knew, which he first told as the convention keynoter four years ago. Countering McCain's portrayal of him as a self-absorbed "celebrity" who lives a rock star life, he spoke emotionally about his grandmothers' struggles in the workplace and of watching his single mother "argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer."

"I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine," he said. "These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election."

Seeking to answer doubts that he understands the day-to-day concerns of working class people, Obama also spoke in personal terms about some of the people he has met on the campaign trail students, veterans, factory workers, small business owners and contrasted his views with those of McCain, portraying him as the candidate who is out of touch with the middle class.

"Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans?"

2) Defining change Obama has been criticized for issuing lofty calls for "change" without explaining how he would actually improve the lives of average Americans. Supporters of Hillary Clinton, his vanquished primary rival, have been vocal in attacking him for a lack of specifics.

In response Obama presented a laundry list of government programs that he said show the differences between him and McCain, on issues from pensions and student loans to health care and renewable energy. He also argued that under him as president, the nation could move beyond an era of sharply polarized partisanship to a post-partisan politics.

"This, too, is part of America's promise, the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.

"I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.

"You make a big election about small things."

3) Hitting back Obama aggressively answered many of the attacks that McCain has thrown at him, in an effort both to show Democrats that he would not be pummeled to defeat like past candidates Michael Dukakis and John Kerry and to show voters that he is tough enough to lead the nation.

He went after McCain on the Republicans' greatest strength, his hardline postions on national security, and in surprisingly personal terms challenged his oppoenent's credentials on the issue:

"And just as we keep our keep our promise to the next generation here at home, so must we keep America's promise abroad. If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have."

Obama also directly took on McCain over the Iraq war, on which the Republican has slammed the Democrat for opposing the "surge" strategy that has led to a reduction in violence in some parts of the country.

"Today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we're wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.

"That's not the judgment we need. That won't keep America safe. We need a president who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past."

In a nice bit of political ju-jitsu, McCain's campaign ran a feel good ad on news channels throughout the evening in which McCain congratulates Obama for his achievement in winning the nomination. It was a smart and generous move, but the Republicans' tone is likely to get much sharper in a hurry as they begin their convention in Minnepaolis on Monday.

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