President Obama’s partisan tone on the campaign trail these days is a far cry from his idealism of 2004, when the fresh-faced Illinois state senator introduced himself to the nation with his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Eight years ago, Mr. Obama enthralled delegates who were gathered in Boston to nominate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts for president, issuing a memorable call for unity among “red state” conservatives who befriend gays and “blue state” liberals who worship an awesome God.
“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” Mr. Obama said in 2004. “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America. That’s what this election is about.”
Four years ago, to a stadium packed with adoring supporters at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Mr. Obama asked voters to embrace his call for a new kind of Washington politics, and they responded by powering him to office.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama is back for yet another convention speech — this time moved out of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium and into a covered arena to avoid potential rain showers — but he seems a changed candidate, and he will have a tougher time sounding those unifying themes.
On the stump last month, the president spoke as if he recognized that there is indeed a conservative America, but he has grown tired and contemptuous of it.
“You’ve got another party that thinks compromise is a dirty word, and that believes the only way we can move forward is to go back to the same top-down economics that got us into this mess in the first place,” Mr. Obama said at a campaign rally. “We’re not going to go backwards and re-fight the same fights we had over the last three years.”
Said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, “Is that the same person? You’d certainly never recognize the Barack Obama of 2004 on the campaign trail today. The candidate of unity and hope and change has become the candidate of division and animosity and wildly irresponsible charges.”
Obama campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, said the bipartisanship that Mr. Obama espoused in 2004 and in his 2008 campaign for the presidency simply didn’t reflect reality.
“His speech in 2004 and campaign in 2008 were wildly unrealistic in promising a post-partisan future,” Mr. Mann said. “Our parties are ideologically polarized and intensely tribal.”
More than three years into Mr. Obama’s presidency, Mr. Mann said, the Republican Party has proved to Mr. Obama how wrong he was.
“Republicans have openly embraced a political strategy of complete opposition to all of Obama’s initiatives, even those modeled on Republican ideas,” he said. “They are waging all-out political war, and Obama would be foolish not to reciprocate in kind.”
If Mr. Obama’s idealism has been tempered since 2004, many of his political goals remain strong. He spoke at that convention eight years ago in Boston about helping union workers who were losing their jobs when their plant moved to Mexico, about providing for people without health insurance and about enabling low-income students to go to college.
“People don’t expect government to solve all their problems,” Mr. Obama said back then. “But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.”
He added, “I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity.”
These themes are the same ones Mr. Obama hammers home on the 2012 campaign trail. The fact that the president is still pushing for these goals indicates, however, that he hasn’t achieved many of them in his four years in office. Mr. Obama, who recently gave his first term a grade of “incomplete,” acknowledges that there is “more work to do” and reminds supporters that he warned them in 2008 that it would not be easy to accomplish his agenda in the midst of a deep recession.
“He inherited the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s — not exactly a great time in which to advance the economic well-being of the middle class,” Mr. Mann said. “Politically, I think he should sharpen his criticism of Republicans in Congress for obstructing his additional proposals to improve the economy in the short term and making the investments critical to its future.”
Voters’ change of mind?
A sustained high unemployment rate carries the risk that many of Mr. Obama’s supporters of four years ago have become disaffected and won’t be motivated to go to the polls in November. Mr. Ayres said the result has been blatant pandering by the president with the demographic groups he needs again.
“He’s following a pattern of serial demographic pandering by throwing a bone to each of his various constituency groups that put him in office in 2008 in the hopes that they will turn out in the same level in 2012,” Mr. Ayres said. “So he’s thrown a contraception bone to single women, he’s thrown the gay marriage bone to gays and lesbians, he’s thrown the Dream Act [immigration] executive order to Hispanics, he’s thrown the Keystone pipeline veto to the environmentalists, the student-loan interest rate to young people, you name it. If you can find a group that was an important part of his coalition in 2008, you can find a pander to that group in 2012.”
In 2004, Mr. Obama spoke about the “audacity of hope.” Republicans say his campaign nowadays is more about audacity than hope, with relentlessly negative attacks against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“He’s basically decided that he can’t win a referendum on his record in office, and therefore his only hope for another term is to so thoroughly trash Mitt Romney that he makes Romney unacceptable,” Mr. Ayres said. “What he’s being today is the exact opposite of what he called for in 2004.”