The paring back of expectations has been an increasingly necessary part of Obama’s rhetoric, given the economic and political realities that have beset his presidency. But as the president prepares for his reelection campaign, his triumphant 2008 message of “hope and change” has undergone a radical transformation, from messianic to just plain messy. The candidate who once dazzled audiences with his soaring rhetoric is still searching for a compelling sales pitch to persuade voters to give him more time to accomplish his goals.
This week, the campaign offered supporters free bumper stickers that read simply “2012,” with the campaign’s Web site address but no slogans whatsoever.
“Two and a half years later, it’s been tough, and there have been setbacks,” Obama said at a private Manhattan fundraiser two weeks ago. He conceded that some of his supporters have lost some enthusiasm. “They’ve still got the Obama poster, but it’s all kind of frayed. And Obama is grayer. He doesn’t seem as cool,” the president said.
Obama has played these lines for laughs all summer, but the self-effacing humor is acknowledgment of the shortfall in “hope and change” during his first three years in office.
Since January 2009, the unemployment rate has risen from 7.6 percent to 9.1 percent, the number of people out of work from 11.6 million to 14 million, and the national debt from $10.6 trillion to $14.6 trillion. Meanwhile, the president’s job approval ratings have gone in the other direction, falling from 65 percent after his first 100 days to his all-time low of 40 percent in recent polls.
“Americans know that we didn’t get into these challenges overnight, and we’re not getting out of them overnight,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “The president in 2008 ran on taking on the big challenges plaguing the country for generations. That’s exactly what he’s done in office.”
But “Big challenges plaguing the country for generations” is no match for “Yes, we can” in the slogan department, and the sluggish economy could make it difficult for the president to build his reelection effort around his accomplishments, such as stabilizing the flailing auto industry, pushing through major health-care reform and killing Osama Bin Laden. Instead, in sharp contrast to 2008, Obama has begun to outline a more negative strategy that contrasts him with obstinate Republicans who have tried to block his agenda.
“A successful campaign will heavily focus on the radical, do-nothing Republican Congress. That will resonate with people,” said Robert Creamer, a strategist for the progressive Americans United for Change. “Most [Americans] believe Obama shares their values and their concerns, and where he has failed them is his effectiveness to improve the economy. It seems to me the case the campaign needs to make is that that failure is a consequence of the damage created by Republicans and the refusal of Congress to take the necessary steps that he proposed for the economy.”