To start with what Obama did well, he did make his policy preferences clear on many issues, even though he did not commit to many specific policies. The exceptions are that Obama did state he wanted to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year, create 1 million manufacturing jobs in four years, and hire 100,000 new teachers by 2020. Otherwise, it was rather broad, expressing support for things such as addressing global warming, equality for gays, strengthening Social Security, and investing in renewable energy. While it would be nice to hear more specific policy proposals on these issues, I can’t blame for not doing so. After all, mainstream Republicans call global warming a hoax, oppose gay rights, want to privatize Social Security, and have never indicated any interest in renewable energy.
There were two specific parts of his speech, though, where I think Obama was sending signals that people wanted to hear, but were very unrealistic. First, Obama’s goal of 1 million manufacturing jobs and doubling exports are nice hopes, but there are so many factors in play here that he can’t possibly commit to making that happen. Massively expanding US exports won’t happen unless Europe gets its house in order and that could be a long way off, especially since Germany, the strongest Euro country, is starting to see some worries about future economic decline. A huge export-led growth based on manufacturing would lead push wages up in this sector, making it hard to keep jobs in the US. By talking this up Obama did present a good idea, but it was clearly not something he can promise to deliver if reelected.
The second part of his speech that was pure popular appeal was his providing a false sense of empowerment to those who voted for him. He said the 2008 election was not about him, but about “you.” He then went on to list policy accomplishments with each followed by “You did that.” Really? The population was responsible for the Affordable Care Act, stopping deportation of the children of illegal immigrants, ending the US war in Iraq? It was one of those statements that is in some broad way true (they wouldn’t have happened if people had not voted for him), but overstates the case completely. The population was responsible for these accomplishments in the same way they were responsible for Clinton surplus, since he was elected by them too. This part of the speech presented a false image of Obama as a leader of a social movement, implying that we can be part of a great march of progress if we vote for him. Obama clearly did have some good accomplishments and maybe there will be progress if he is reelected, but by saying “You did this,” he made people feel like participants when they were mostly spectators.