In 2008, it was all about hope and change. After an unprecedented and historic primary season where either the first woman or the first African American would be the nominee of a major political party, delegates gathered in Denver to nominate their presidential hopeful and celebrate history in the making. The campaign that followed did more to excite and inspire new voters than at any time since 1960.
With President Obama’s first term coming to a conclusion, it is fair to say that the bloom is off the rose. The energy and the dreams associated with the first Obama candidacy have given way to conventional and tactical political campaigning, where money is a paramount factor, truth often becomes a casualty, and blows below the belt are very much part of the game. Even Democrats concede that the country’s polarizing divisions have not subsided under Obama. And while the Obama administration can point to real achievements, the state of the economy and the continuing debate over Obama’s most controversial policies, such as Obamacare, are guaranteed to make this a closer call that it should have been.
What can the Democrats do to make this a race about direction of the country and rather than simply a referendum on the president? Voters know their candidate better after close to four years in office. The majority of them appear to like him, and acknowledge that he was dealt a hard hand. They like his family too, and have not bought into the birther idiocy promoted by some of his opponents. Yet, you can sense some widespread disappointment. A lot of this disenchantment may have also much to do with the extraordinarily high expectations Obama set in his 2008 “yes, we can” campaign, but it is clear that Americans have become less certain that what the future hold will be better than the past.
In Tampa last week, the Republicans asked the famous 1980 Reagan question: Are you better off today then you were four years ago? A fair question, to be sure, and one that is not easy to answer in one word.
To the 23 million Americans out of work or underemployed, to college graduates facing meager employment opportunities, to people still living in poverty, to minorities still showing disproportionately high unemployment rates, the answer is likely “no.”
However, it is also fair to point out that by the end of the second Bush presidency, close to four million private sector jobs had been lost, the U.S. was highly engaged in a combat role in Iraq, Bin Laden was still alive, the Dow Jones Index was worth half its value today, and the domestic auto industry had collapsed.
Today, all economic data shows that the Obama stimulus plan avoided a depression, GM is back to being number one in the world by sales volumes, the Dow Jones Index has passed the 13 000-point mark, the financial sector has been saved, Bin Laden is dead, 30 million more Americans are on track to get affordable access to healthcare, and the U.S. is no longer fighting in Iraq. And the economy has registered over 30 months of continued growth. In all these respects, America is better off than it was four years ago.
The convention is over now and it made for a better show than the one in Tampa. Great speeches by the major actors certainly give hope to the Democrats as they leave Charlotte. Bill Clinton dealt a very effective blow to the Republican narrative. President Obama delivered a strong speech with a healthy dose of realism and some needed humility. The Democrats now seem energized.
The debate will surely rage on until November 6. What the Democrats have to acknowledge beyond the rhetoric of the convention is that the America they promised in 2008 is still a work in progress and some mistakes were made along the way. They will also have to do more than blame their predecessors for the mess they inherited. It will, however, be fair game to dissect Republican policies and show that the GOP is proposing more of the same pre-2008 ideas, and that they did little to provide bipartisan support to the administration’s job creation projects.
Four years ago, Obama made Americans dream with a generous and inspiring message of what was to come. Now he must present a compelling vision, a choice, a course of action, and a contrast between where he intends to take America with a second term and where Romney would lead it. We should judge him by that standard.