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Obama hits Clinton-era notes in speech

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U.S. Sen. Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president in Denver on Aug. 29, 2008. (Obama for America)

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president in Denver on Aug. 29, 2008. (Obama for America)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Picking up where many of his fellow Democrats left off Wednesday, Barack Obama used part of his nomination speech to advance the argument that Republican policies in the Middle East have hurt America’s battle against terrorism and endangered Israel.

“You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq,” Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) told the estimated crowd of 75,000 people Thursday at Invesco Field. “You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances. If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but it is not the change we need.”

This was not a speech about the Jewish vote or foreign policy, though Obama hit many notes that most Jews agree with and offered some sharp critiques of the GOP’s diplomatic and national security record.

Rather, the speech Obama delivered had enough red meat for his staunch supporters while also hitting many notes meant to reassure backers of primary challenger Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

There was plenty to electrify the faithful who long have seen their candidate as a transcendent figure, from the packed-stadium setting, to the classical columns serving as a backdrop to the fireworks, to pop singer Will. I. Am’s “Yes I Can” ode to Obama’s Iowa victory speech. But Obama also supplied more than he had in many previous speeches for those looking for a more mundane definition of change – as in, a change back from the Bush years to the Clinton ones.

With his main party rivals vanquished, the Democratic nominee suddenly appeared much more willing to embrace the Clinton record and mantle.

“We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma,” Obama declared. “We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was president – when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000 like it has under George Bush.”

Obama echoed what was the crux of President Clinton’s change message during the 1992 campaign and much of his presidency: Government needs to do more, but people also need to take more personal responsibility.

Recent polls suggest that Obama is struggling to match previous levels of Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates, but on Thursday night even some of his most prominent Jewish conservative critics were praising his nomination speech.

“Barack Obama faced very high expectations tonight, and honestly, I think he met them. And I honestly think he exceeded them,” said William Kristol, during the post-speech punditry session on Fox News.

“He ran with the theme of America’s promise,” added Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and an opinion columnist for the New York Times. “He avoided the mistake liberals sometimes make of seeming to have disdain for America in any way, I thought. He eloquently explained America’s promise. He explained why the Bush-Cheney administration had fallen short of that and then explained how, allegedly, his administration would lead us back towards that. I thought it was an awfully impressive performance.”

Another Fox News contributor and Jewish conservative Obama basher, Charles Krauthammer, also gave the speech a thumbs-up, describing it as a masterful political display underscoring an ability to adapt to the needs of the general election.

To be sure, Kristol or Krauthammer, their readers and dedicated GOP Jewish activists still will be forcefully backing Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumtive Republican nominee. Nothing in Thursday’s speech is going to change their view that Obama is a liberal who lacks the experience and toughness to fight terrorism, finish the job in Iraq and stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But in a year when Obama simply needs to do as well as the generic Democrat, keeping his base energized and shoring up his standing with Clinton voters could be enough.

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