The thing about change…

Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images So I guess that Obama guy is a pretty good speaker. It was a very strong speech and, as one would expect at this point, very well delivered. Obama capitalized on the historic nature of the night, struck a fairly convincing populist tone, painted McCain as a continuation of Bush, ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
592896_080829_timesquare5.jpg
592896_080829_timesquare5.jpg

Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images

So I guess that Obama guy is a pretty good speaker.

It was a very strong speech and, as one would expect at this point, very well delivered. Obama capitalized on the historic nature of the night, struck a fairly convincing populist tone, painted McCain as a continuation of Bush, and deflected Republican attacks on his patriotism and celebrity.

Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images

So I guess that Obama guy is a pretty good speaker.

It was a very strong speech and, as one would expect at this point, very well delivered. Obama capitalized on the historic nature of the night, struck a fairly convincing populist tone, painted McCain as a continuation of Bush, and deflected Republican attacks on his patriotism and celebrity.

But as others have noticed, for all that Obama has made “change” the theme of his campaign, he’s sticking pretty closely to traditional Democratic talking points. Obama’s attack on the Republicans as the party of fat cats and lobbyists who put the interests of the rich above those of ordinary Americans has been a staple of Democratic rhetoric since the turn of the last century and in many ways, the speech didn’t really address the most controversial aspects of George Bush’s presidency.

There was no mention of Guantanamo Bay or torture, no mention of the politicization of the federal judiciary, almost nothing about global warming policy, and nothing whatsoever about illegal surveillance. Also, while Obama certainly stressed the importance of withdrawing from Iraq and a renewed commitment to diplomacy, there was no discussion of the new doctrine of preemption that led to the war.

While these problems may not excite the Democratic base as much as the kitchen table economic concerns that Obama focused on, I suspect they matter a lot to the independents and moderate conservatives who are considering voting for him out of anger at the GOP.

Part of the problem for Obama is that if ever there was a “change” presidency, it was Bush’s. On the topics above and several others, the Bush administration was a break not only with his predecessor but with traditional Republican policies as well. Obama has positioned his campaign as not only a change from Bush, but as a departure from the politics of the last few decades. The problem with this message is that on a host of issues, his supporters probably want nothing more than a return to the pre-Bush status quo.

That’s a complex distinction to make without muddling the message, and a hard one to work into an elegantly constructed speech.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.