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The Conventions: Democrats Enter Stage Left

BU profs weigh in on what the president needs to do this week

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When President Barack Obama takes the podium at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday night, he will face a nation weary of a stagnant economy and a tangled, inherited war that continues to claim the lives of young Americans. Since 1900, five incumbent presidents, of both parties, have lost reelection bids, and recent polls indicate that in this race Obama has his work cut out for him, especially in light of the very deep pockets of his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. A  Gallup election 2012 tracking poll released last Friday had the candidates in a dead heat, with Obama supporters at 47 percent and Romney’s at 46 percent.

Can Obama’s convention performance put him out front in what promises to be a close, mean-spirited race?

That would depend on whether anyone’s paying attention. Although national political conventions continue to rivet the media, political insiders, and “the hardest of the hard-core base of their parties,” says Tobe Berkovitz, a College of Communication associate professor of advertising, “the average voter has their eyes glaze over and grabs for the remote during 90 percent” of the proceedings.

Fred Bayles, a COM associate professor of journalism and director of BU’s State House Program, notes that political conventions have “de-evolved” over the past four decades, dwindling from centers of often-rancorous debate over “the party’s soul” to photo opportunities and “tightly scripted television extravaganzas.”

Especially if the candidate, like Obama, is an incumbent, says Elizabeth Mehren, a COM professor of journalism, conventions are “pro forma” partisan lovefests. “Conventions are increasingly less important, regardless of party.”

With Republican opponent Romney nipping at his heels, what Obama needs to do to energize his supporters and gain a respectable lead is, at the very least, deliver a knockout speech, according to pundits. But that won’t be easy, Bayles says, noting that Obama is “old news now. The convention and his part in it should be about what a second Obama administration will do. He won’t win many converts, but he does have the opportunity to get those who lean toward him to vote.”

Others are more pessimistic. “There really isn’t much Obama can do since he has been a continual presence on TV since being elected,” says Berkovitz, who believes that all of the president’s major speeches have “fallen relatively flat.” If Obama rises to the occasion in Charlotte, he should primarily rev up enthusiasm to boost voter turnout and “put the exclamation point to the attacks against Romney,” his running mate, Paul Ryan, and Republicans in general. And even if Obama pulls off a “bold, brave proposal,” which would be ideal, says Mehren, he still must tread carefully: embracing a social issue rather than focusing on the economy could cost him votes. And even though his opponent has no military experience, she thinks that Obama should downplay his actions as commander in chief. The president “cannot reap political capital out of the assassination of Osama bin Laden,” she says. “To do so only emphasizes the fact that these conflicts continue to claim American lives.”

Pundits on both sides of the political fence seem to agree on one thing: Obama should be worried. They point to Romney’s personal wealth and huge campaign contributions, giving him an edge reminiscent of the “seemingly bottomless bankbook,” as Mehren calls it, that swept him into the Massachusetts governorship in 2002. “When it comes to American presidential races,” she says, “money doesn’t just talk—it screams.” But in all the coverage of Romney’s war chest, “there is not much coverage of the huge margin of Obama outspending John McCain in 2008,” according to Berkovitz. And Bayles believes that “spending a gazillion dollars on political ads” won’t have an effect on the coming presidential election, with poll numbers remaining nearly unchanged for months.

The greatest hurdle facing the president is the floundering economy, followed by a divided climate over health care, a serious concern for most Americans, Mehren says. Obama “needs to make a strong case for the positive actions he has taken to reverse the climate of economic decline he inherited when he took office,” she says. And Berkovitz agrees that the economy “is the number-one, number-two, and number-three issue. Jobs and the economy will be the real underlying factor for the voters.”

Regardless of Obama’s sway at the convention, many Americans do not interpret the lagging economic recovery as the president’s inability to lead, but “as a significant problem that began well before 2009 that can’t be fixed by simply putting your candidate in the White House,” says Bayles. In that sense, although Romney is on the attack and Obama on the defensive, “blame is not being limited to Obama or the Democrats,” he says. “It may not serve Romney as well as everyone thinks if he makes the campaign all about Obama’s inability to fix the economy. He’s going to have to offer a clear idea of what he would do to make it better.”

One eagerly anticipated aspect of the convention is tonight’s keynote address by Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio. At 37, Castro is the youngest mayor of a major city and the first Latino ever to deliver a keynote speech at a Democratic convention. While unknown to the majority of Americans, he is considered a rising star in the party and has played an influential behind-the-scenes role in Obama’s reelection efforts.

But in Berkovitz’s opinion, former President Bill Clinton, not Castro, will be the star attraction. Clinton will deliver a prime-time address tomorrow night, and his selection, Berkowitz says, is not without risks. “The danger for Obama is that Clinton will deliver a stem-winder speech that makes Democrats and Independents wish he, rather than Obama, was president,” he says. “Other speakers will be a litany of tired pols and red-meat activists.”

Still, there’s some buzz that, against the odds, convention keynote Castro could steal the show. “Typically, these speeches are soon forgotten by an increasingly jaded public,” Mehren says. “One exception was a speaker who captivated the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. His name was Barack Obama.”

Find more election year analysis and commentary by BU professors in the video series “Campaign 2012.”

Read about BU students covering the Republican and Democratic conventions here.

2 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

2 Comments on The Conventions: Democrats Enter Stage Left

  • SDF on 09.04.2012 at 9:18 am

    Oddly, Seligson doesn’t even mention Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to pour money into the campaign, and, as it turns out (no surprise), most of that money is going to Republicans. The amount of money pouring into campaigns is obscene. Citizens United makes it even more so. Some democracy.

  • David on 09.04.2012 at 12:42 pm

    Employers support someone who is good for the economy, no surprise there, SDF. Unions pour money to the Democrats – money taken from dues employees are forced to pay.

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