You’d think that after winning a brutish, grueling, obscenely expensive contest to hold on to the power of the White House—an interminable bickerfest for which the candidates and their allies spent billions of dollars to savage each other—President Obama might have offered a few brief, sunny words, gotten off the stage, and gone home to catch up on sleep.
Starting his victory speech past 12:30 a.m. Chicago time—long after Mitt Romney had graciously, concisely conceded—Obama went on for 22 minutes, essentially a second inaugural address in which he delivered the rhetorical equivalent of a big spoon of castor oil (sweetened here and there by a graceful flourish or two) and exhorted the citizenry to swallow it whole for the good of the country, never mind the taste.
In contrast to the ecstatic mood of his partisans, the president was the opposite of triumphal. To the throbbing beat of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” blaring from the loudspeakers at McCormick Place, the crowd of more than 10,000 supporters greeted the president and his family—Michelle, Malia, and Sasha—with a delirious roar when they walked onstage. (Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Vivica Fox, and even Star Jones were among the celebrities who lounged in a VIP room while the plain folk stood for hours, cheek by jowl.)
But then Obama talked soberly of despair, frustration, long journeys, roadblocks, and clawing our way back, of the persistence of gridlock and the cynicism of the media, of the painstaking work required to build consensus, of the difficult compromises necessary “to move this country forward.” It was, let’s be honest, something of a buzzkill. Before his lecture was finished, a procession of people had started streaming out the doors.
It was, after all, very late.
Not that it was a bad speech—and judging from Obama’s serious demeanor, it was deeply felt. He effusively praised Joe Biden as “America’s happy warrior, the best vice president anybody could ever ask for.” He gave a shout-out to his wife of 20 years, saying, “I have never loved you more; I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.” And he got choked up as he spoke of his daughters becoming “two strong, smart, beautiful young women, just like your mom.” In a rare lighthearted moment, he added, “I will say that for now, one dog’s probably enough.”
As was only proper, he praised the formidable army that secured a second term for him as “the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of America—the best.”
And Obama went out of his way to heap praise on Romney—who at times accused him, ridiculously, of exploiting hatreds—and the Romney family’s commitment to public service. “I just spoke with Governor Romney, congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign. We have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply.”
Obama announced that he plans to meet soon with his vanquished enemy to seek common ground, and the crowd cheered. Only an hour earlier, they had booed robustly and gave a collective thumbs-down sign when Romney appeared with his wife, Ann, on the Jumbotrons hanging from the ceiling—a less than respectful or generous response to a loser manfully taking ownership of his failure.
Obama, meanwhile, claimed that “our economy is recovering, a decade of war is now ending, a long campaign is now over. And whether I’ve earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you, and you have made me a better president.” He added: “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. I’m looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties.”
If so, that will represent a departure from the truculent spirit of Obama and his adversaries during his first term. We’ll see.