When he ran for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama sprinkled his campaign speeches with ambitious catchphrases such as “the fierce urgency of now” and “yes we can.”
Nowadays, as he gears up for his re-election campaign, prepares a much-anticipated address on the economy to Congress and confronts some of the worst polling numbers of his presidency, President Obama has been trotting out a stump speech with a far less lofty message for voters: You expected too much from me.
“When I ran in 2008, I think that a lot of folks believed we elect Obama and suddenly we’re going to fix politics in Washington,” the president told a group of wealthy donors Aug. 11 in New York City in one typical passage. “And then, after 2 years, it’s been tough and there have been setbacks. It turns out that there are a lot of bad habits that have been built up over time [in Washington], and we’re also a big, diverse country and not everybody agrees with me.”
Referring to deliriously happy supporters on election night 2008 in Chicago, the president told Democrats in Miami this summer, “I tried to warn people, I explained to them: This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. We weren’t going to be able to do it in a day or a week or a year or maybe even not in one term.”
The president’s attempt to dampen expectations retroactively is calculated, given a national unemployment rate that remains above 9 percent after his $821 billion economic recovery program. But observers are struck by the oratorical downshift in the candidate who revved up so many audiences with powerful speeches three years ago.
“It’s almost as if he’s moving in reverse,” said Stephen Hess, an analyst on the presidency at the Brookings Institution. “People usually get better at giving speeches, not worse.”
In 2008, Mr. Obama’s speeches “held tens of thousands spellbound,” Mr. Hess said. “But it’s very hard to find a very strong speech he’s given since he’s been in office.”
Part of Mr. Obama’s difficulty in finding the right inspirational tone now for a stump speech is making the transition from blameless candidate to culpable leader, said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
“He’s having his own teachable moment between campaigning and experienced governing,” Mr. Bonjean said. “First, he blamed the Bush administration, then he blamed Congress, and now he’s saying [to voters], ‘It’s your fault for expecting too much of me.’”
Mr. Bonjean added, “The last thing voters want to hear are excuses or whining. You can’t offer excuses and then be an inspirational leader.”
In fundraising speeches early this year, Mr. Obama often referred to the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure by pointing to a United States in decline and calling attention to better facilities in other countries.
“America has always had the best stuff,” Mr. Obama said at a fundraiser in Washington on June 20. “People would travel from around the world to marvel at the infrastructure we had built. We can’t claim to have the best anymore. You go to airports in Beijing or Singapore that put a lot of our airports to shame. [There are] high-speed rail networks all through Europe that could be built here in the United States of America.”
But on his most recent campaign-style trip, a three-day mid-August bus tour through swing states in the Midwest, Mr. Obama changed his tune to one of American pride.
“I believe with every fiber of my being that there is not a country on Earth that would not be willing to trade places with the United States of America,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in Decorah, Iowa, to enthusiastic applause. “We’ve got the best universities. We’ve got the best entrepreneurs. We’ve got the best scientists. We’ve got the best market system, the most dynamic in the world. And so as tough as things are, all of us are incredibly blessed to have been born in the United States of America.”
As Mr. Obama tries in campaign speeches to advance a vision of America with a robust role for government, he is confronting another problem: More people of all political persuasions say they distrust government. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote recently in the New York Times that his focus groups “tune out the politicians’ fine speeches” and dismiss them as “just words.”
“This distrust of government and politicians is unfolding [just] as a full-blown crisis of legitimacy sidelines Democrats and liberalism,” Mr. Greenberg wrote, noting that only 25 percent of Americans are optimistic about the government. “A crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?”
As the 2012 race intensifies, Mr. Obama is moderating his campaign rhetoric by asking supporters to take a more historical view of his presidency. At the event in New York two weeks ago, the president talked about the theme he planned to strike in a now-postponed speech at the dedication of the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall.
“Now that King has his own memorial on the Mall, I think that we forget when he was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times,” Mr. Obama said. “There was a decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma in which he was just struggling, fighting the good fight, and scorned, and many folks [were] angry.
“But what he understood, what kept him going, was that the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” the president said. ” But it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because all of us are putting our hand on the arc and we are bending it in that direction.”
“And,” he added, “it takes time.”