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A humble Obama could be the bounce-back king

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, is the adopted home of the man they call His Airness.

Many know him better as Michael Jordan, basketball player and sporting superstar, a man who was to the slam dunk what Elvis was to hip sways.

Next week, another well-known figure comes to the southern city for his party's national convention. The Democrats are on their way, led by Barack Obama, the candidate crowned four years ago in triumph but the President who should now go by the name of His Hot Airness.

Too harsh for the man who put the O for oratory back in the alphabet of American politics? Too condemnatory for the politician who can make words sing like Jessye Norman, who can craft a speech as uplifting as a Maya Angelou poem?

Not nearly harsh enough, one hopes. Mr Obama, though the popularity polls say different, has a fight on his hands to secure a second term, and the more he can be persuaded to dispense with the warm words and engage with cold, hard-edged reality, the better.

The Republicans emerged from their convention in Tampa, Florida, looking not too windswept and a lot more interesting. It was not Ann Romney's "Stand By My Man" speech that did it. If ever confirmation was needed that the Republicans are the Mad Men party of America, stuck in the past when it comes to feminism, it was Mrs Romney's speech. The politics of the speech were so dated, so little wife on the prairie, she might as well have donned a bonnet to deliver it.

The truly interesting contributions, the stuff that would have had Democrat staffers firing emails at each other like bullets at the Alamo, were the Paul Ryan and Condoleezza Rice speeches. For some, the dream scenario would have been for Ms Rice to be speaking as the nominee last night instead of Mitt Romney. But make no mistake – a marker has been put down for 2016, or 2020. Whether the Republican party will by then be able to accept a childless career woman as a candidate is another matter. In any event, Ms Rice has shown she has the right stuff to at least try.

The former Secretary of State scored several direct hits on Mr Obama, chief among which was the accusation that the state of America's finances could have serious repercussions globally. "When the world looks at us today," said Ms Rice, "they see an American government that cannot live within its means. They see an American government that continues to borrow money, that will mortgage the future of generations to come. The world knows that when a nation loses control of its finances, it eventually loses control of its destiny." As Mr Obama might say, ouch.

Impressive as she was, Ms Rice was merely the warm-up act for Paul Ryan, the man who would be the next Veep. The hall loved him, but then the hall would. For those outside the convention centre in Tampa, Mr Ryan had three huge advantages. First, he wasn't Sarah Palin. Second, he wasn't Sarah Palin. Third, he wasn't ... you get the idea. True, the 42-year-old policy wonk had as much charisma as a calculator, but he still managed to push a few buttons in the Obama camp, particularly when he spoke about a generation's ambition being frustrated.

What a vivid picture he daubed of a college graduate in their 20s, still living with their parents because there were no jobs, "staring up at faded Obama posters" and wondering when they can move out and get on with life. You can bet a few of Mr Obama's laptop army, the recruits that went all out for him in 2008, will have winced at that. They still back him, the polls of under-35s show that, but it remains to be seen if they will turn out in the same numbers.

Mr Ryan poses a danger to the Democrats because he fires up the Republican base, those oh so essential volunteers. They tolerate Mr Romney; they adore Mr Ryan. With his tough talk of harsh economic medicine followed by renewal, Mr Ryan talks the same talk as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He comes across as a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of guy, even if the only labour he's used to is the kind that takes place over coffee in a DC meeting room. "Let's get this done," the phrase he's trying out for size as a mantra, sounds more Bob the Builder rather than Reagan the Great Communicator, but to Americans impatient for change he's making all the right noises about job creation.

Where does this leave Mr Obama? A Washington Post/ABC poll before the conventions had Mr Obama at 46% and Mr Romney at 47%. When it comes to likeability, being the guy with whom the average American would most like to have a beer, Mr Obama is still in front: 50% as opposed to Mr Romney's 35%.

With more than 70% of voters citing the economy as the key deciding factor in how they will vote, Mr Obama has to face the Republican accusations of inaction head on. It helps him enormously that when it comes to apportioning blame for the country's economic woes, voters are more likely to look to the previous administration, the general state of global finances and Wall Street, more than the incumbent. Crucially, there are just enough signs – including house prices rising for the fifth consecutive month – that the recovery is picking up. Does a country already living in harsh times need or want the tough economic love promised by Mr Ryan? The most attractive diet in the world, after all, is always the one that starts tomorrow.

Mr Obama has a way with a speech the way Michael Jordan has with a basketball. He doesn't have anything left to prove on that score. But he is no longer the nominee, no longer the coming man; he is the man, the man who has been in charge for four years. A little humility has to be the order of the day.

The 2012 election is tighter than once could have been imagined. Just 5% of voters say they are undecided and the election is coming down to a dozen key states. In such a pinch, Mr Obama might be tempted to reach high to sway voters, to let his rhetoric fly. That would be a mistake. His Hot Airness needs to go into retirement and a cool, but not chilly, political operator take his place. The Democrats have already had a comeback kid. A humble Mr Obama could yet be the bounce-back king.

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