CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Four years ago, it seemed as though the Obama campaign could control everything — even the weather. On that night of his acceptance speech in the stadium in Denver, the setting was ideal, dry and cool, with the backdrop of endless sky perfect for the thousands who roared at his triumph. After that, his win in November 2008 was anticlimactic, almost pre-ordained.
Four years later in Charlotte, unpredictable storms marked the shortened Democratic convention. There were clear moments when everything seemed fine and on the right track, the air humid in the way you would expect in a Southern September. Then the sky would open for minutes of rain, and not a gentle mist, either. No, these were torrential downpours – brief but intense.
No one knew quite what to expect or when to expect it.
The triumphant moment planned for weeks, a closing presidential speech before 70,000 at Bank of America Stadium, instead became a more intimate gathering, 20,000 in Time Warner Cable Arena. In campaigns marked by partisanship, the Obama team’s reasonable explanation for the last-minute switch – a good chance of severe thunderstorms and a week’s worth of weather craziness – was disputed by Republicans, who giddily jumped on the notion that President Obama’s team couldn’t fill the seats, and dreaded the visual image of empty Panther blue patches being beamed across the world.
So it was back to the scaled-down dimensions of the arena for an organization with lofty goals that had to be shrunk a bit in the face of uncontrollable forces, a fact of life for any campaign but not one any president wants to see so boldly on display, particularly when it mirrors a theme of the last four years.
Thousands had lined up for hours for the community credentials that would have admitted them to the stadium to witness history; many had traveled from out of state and out of the country, and others had volunteered in the campaign to earn a spot. They had to be content with a 10-minute conference call from Obama and a plea for understanding: “We know it’s disappointing. All I can tell you is how much I appreciate all that you’ve done.”
Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday night was itself a more modest address. Though four years ago, the tags that held him up as a messiah were ridiculous – neither he nor his supporters thought he was anything other than a man – the expectations and hopes that rested on his shoulders were impossible for any one person to fulfill, especially one with the determined and stated opposition of a Republican Party weighing him down.
The president reached back beyond 2008 to 2004, when his introduction to the world and his theme of hope shifted the political dialogue and started his swift rise. “That hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history, and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time,” he said.
What 2012 is about, Obama said, more deadly serious than lofty, is “a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
From Tampa, viewers saw a stream of GOP players list their all-American bona fides, their hard-working immigrant ancestors who dreamed the American dream. In Charlotte, Democrats offered their own version of “the basic bargain at the heart of America’s story,” the president said, “the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.”
“I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president,” Obama said, both asserting the authority that has been questioned at every turn and taking responsibility. He aligned himself with the social mobility that has marked this country and that the Democrats say is in danger, and in his speech, he turned that vision outward. “My fellow citizens, you were the change,” he said.
In a powerful passage, he admitted he doesn’t have all the answers: “While I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’ ”
The Barack Obama of Denver 2008 had not been tested at home and abroad, had not been scarred by four years of partisan battles. The 2012 convention ended with a celebration, but a scaled-down, sober one, and Obama oratory more humble than soaring.
Obama doesn’t control the weather or the raucous crowds who he hopes still believe in his message, whether heard from inside an arena or in hastily convened watch parties in Charlotte and all across the country.
“Our path is harder, but it leads to a better place,” the president said, asking Americans to follow him, even when at times nothing – not even the sky above us — is as clear as it once seemed.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.