Week In Politics: Democratic National Convention

Audie Cornish talks to regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the Democratic National Convention.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

While the two candidates wasted no time today stacking up the swing state miles, we're going to linger for the next few minutes on the Democratic Convention and President Obama's performance last night. To do that, I'm going to turn it over to my co-host, Audi Cornish, who's still in Charlotte.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thanks, Melissa. And I'm going to turn it over to our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne, speaking with me in Charlotte, and David Brooks, who's already made his way back to Washington. Gentlemen, welcome.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So first impressions, right, this big speech for the president. We had President Obama actually acknowledge that the last few years have been hard on the country and humbling for him. Here's a little snip of the speech.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And while I'm very proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I have no place else to go.

BLOCK: So David, he had a touch of the conciliatory here, but also, you know, some defiance. Did this speech work for you?

BROOKS: I thought it was good against the Republicans. Both parties are making a good case against the other. I really was struck by the president's lack of really a big agenda for the next four years. Two-thirds of the country thinks we're headed in the wrong direction. That suggests this is a change election. They want a change and the question is does Obama have a new burst of change in him and if he does, I don't think we really saw it.

We saw some very familiar policies, very familiar goals. A lot of them are very good. They're things like helping more people go to community college, longer life for batteries, things like that, but they're not exactly a big grand change agenda. And so, you know, there's a cliche in politics, you can't beat something with nothing. And the Democrats apparently are going to test that proposition.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: I guess both parties may be testing that proposition. I was struck that a lot of people have said this was a state of the union address. But precisely because of what David said, that there weren't a lot of detailed policies in here at all. I thought it was more like an inaugural address, summoning the nation to action and sacrifice. You know, one commentator after another has said that President Obama can't inspire the elation he called forth four years ago and that's true because times are tough.

And I thought a little humility was a good idea in these times. So, Obama turned things around. He challenged those who supported him to stay in the fight for the long term and do the work required for saving their original vision. It was still hope and change, but it was hope and change made of sterner and more demanding stuff. I heard in parts of the speech echoes of John F. Kennedy's ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country.

So it wasn't at all a traditional political speech. This wasn't transactional politics, here's what I'll do for you. It's what you citizens ought to do with me and that's an interesting approach.

CORNISH: At the same time, E.J., I want to stop you there because you've had so many people come to the stage of the Democratic National Convention who made the case for the president defensively. And so, weren't people looking for specific policies?

DIONNE: Right. No, I agree with the general critique that there weren't a lot of specifics here. And I thought that Romney had opened a big door for the president to walk through by, in a sense, having even fewer specifics than President Obama had. And they, you know, you sometimes wondered if the Obama campaign thinks it's on a good track to win and just didn't want to mess things up by being more specific.

I, too, was looking for somewhat more specificity. One specific thing, however, that was interesting is he mentioned climate change. That issue's been dead since 2010. I thought that was the one striking courageous moment or one of the striking and actually courageous moments in the speech.

CORNISH: And obviously, the issue that people are talking about far more than climate change are the jobs numbers, at least today. 96,000 jobs created in the most recent jobs report. And while the unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent, that's largely because people gave up looking for work. So it's interesting, President Obama's message last night about jobs and the economy was pretty blunt. Here's what he had to say.

OBAMA: Now, I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear, you elected me to tell you the truth.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And the truth is it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.

CORNISH: Now David, is that message going to resonate with voters?

BROOKS: If we were on the right path, it would, but I'm not sure we are. You know, the job creation in 2012 is worse than in 2011. So we're going backwards. If we had the same number of people in the labor force now as we did when Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be over 11. Non-supervisory wages are just collapsing. And so we're sort of headed slightly in the wrong direction.

And so that's going to be a drain on the administration, and there's a case where you really could imagine a bold agenda. You know, one of the things that characterizes this joblessness is that people with college degrees are fine. We've basically recovered from the recession. People without college degrees, their prospects are plummeting.

And so you can imagine a bold series of things to do to get rid of that education gap, and that I think highlights the vacuum, the policy vacuum, that we heard last night.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: You know, in partial defense of the speech, actually one of the biggest sections of the speech was actually on education and training. But I think one of the things that is striking is how Bill Clinton, the night before, was far more specific on many of these matters, both explaining why the economy isn't better but that Obama still kept us from falling into a disaster and suggesting that Obama's way forward is more promising.

Nonetheless, I think it's almost as if when Obama gave this speech, he expected the job numbers today, right after his speech, to be disappointing. That may explain some of the humility in the speech. And it was almost a bit of Churchill - all I promise you is blood, sweat and tears - because he didn't say everything's going to be easy in this speech.

And there was, I think, a little less optimism about the long term than one might have expected.

CORNISH: And we just have a short time left, so I want to ask lastly: Which of the two parties here pulled off a more effective convention? Let's use that word.

BROOKS: Well, very briefly, I think the Democratic convention was more focused, more on-message, more disciplined. And I think that Michelle Obama was incredible and launched a critique of Mitt Romney without mentioning his name. Clinton was obviously Clinton, and Obama was in some ways less effective than those two speakers, but I think it was much more on-message and focused.

CORNISH: David, last word to you.

BROOKS: I'd also give the Democrats a slight edge. Michelle was better than Ann. Clinton was the best speech of the year. And his speech made the Republican convention look worse in retrospect because the Romney-Ryan campaign didn't take the advantage to explain their policies, and Clinton basically just filled the vacuum.

CORNISH: Of course we have many, many weeks to go to November and far more opportunities for the parties to make their case. Of course the debates will be the next thing we'll all be excited to talk about next. E.J. Dionne with The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you E.J.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you, David.

BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And I'm Audie Cornish here in Charlotte.

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