In contemplating Obama’s challenges tonight, I can’t help but think back to the way Bill Clinton solved one of them for him. Before Obama’s speeches we always seem to ask whether he can avoid being too aloof or professorial or pedantic or whatever term we used to describe the widely held view—and it’s been ratified by the New York Times!—that our president thinks he’s smarter than us.
That’s been not only a problem with Obama’s tone, but a Democratic messaging conundrum since the emergence of George W. Bush as the GOP’s standard-bearer. Democrats think they’re smarter than Republicans: more serious about issues, more intellectually honest, more committed to science and empiricism. This assumption informs nearly every judgment the party makes about its opposition. (The only area where Democrats don’t always think they’re better is the one I cover most of the time: Each side perpetually thinks the other side is more tactically savvy.) Basically Democrats have spent 12 years trying to find out how to call their opponents idiots without sounding like snobs.
The solution, of course, is Clinton. (It seems like he’s the magical stranger who solves all the Democrats’ problems, no?) He managed to judge the Republicans on intellectual terms: caricatured them as unserious, intellectually unsophisticated—quite literally, know-nothings. He explained to the country that Republicans simply didn’t understand arithmetic, and didn’t look snobby about it.
Doesn’t this relieve Obama of a major burden? He doesn’t need to explain, avoiding a lapse into the professorial, and he can judge his opponents’ proposals in terms that project empathy and not intellectual superiority.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.