Yes, of course it was a good speech. But I'm left with a nagging feeling that it was written for whiners rather than winners. Blame it perhaps on Springsteen, but the nationalist reactionary language of "Born in the USA" is an inauspicious way of introducing the first genuinely 21st century American President. Like the twenty year old song, the speech was neither modern nor bold ("Born to Run" would have been a much livelier warm-up). Only at the end -- when Obama reached his promised land of identity politics -- did the speech truly reflect the man.
The Democrats tried to appropriate brand America as the backdrop for the speech. Thus the mass of kitchy little flags and all the Las Vegas style imperial symbolism (Are We Rome Yet? -- Yes, We Are!). But the speech itself looked backwards rather than forwards. It spoke of the America of the 20th rather than the 21st century -- idealizing the mythological white working class America that is, for better or worse, shrinking by the minute. It was a speech over-dedicated to the America of laid off car workers and the other supposedly innocent victims of globalisation. For all the talk about America, it wasn't quite an American speech. It failed to paint the future cheerfully, expansively, as inevitably American. Peggy Noonen, who usually has a good feel for these sorts of unspoken Reaganesque details, suggested this morning:
And I'll tell you, Mr. Obama left a lot of space for Mr. McCain to play the happy warrior next week. He left the Republicans a big opportunity to wield against him, in contrast, humor, and wit, and even something approximating joy.
I fear she's right. And, if this morning's rumors are correct and McCain goes for Palin (or even Lieberman), the pedagogical Obama is suddenly going to look very earnest, very unamerican. There still too much Harvard Law School in his act. He's got to have a drink, loosen up and look like he's having fun. There was too much Hillary in the speech and not enough Bill. He needs to stop catering to all the narrow little interest groups within his party and joyfully seize the moment. As Springsteen wrote at the end of "Thunder Road", the most optimistic and cathartic American popular song of all time:
"So Mary climb in, it's a town for losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."
That's the real American journey. And Barack Obama hasn't got to the end of Thunder Road yet.