President Obama’s bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania late last week offered a striking look at the evolution of a president. In 2008, Obama used soaring rhetoric and personal biography to talk about binding together a red-blue nation. His message today is about the urgent need to defeat a stubborn opposition party in order to move the country forward.
Four years ago, Obama used themes of hope and change to suggest that he could bring a new politics to Washington. He was open to the idea that, as he sometimes put it, the solutions to the country’s problems were somewhere between the rhetoric and visions of both parties. His goal, he said, was to help guide the country, through his leadership, to that imagined golden mean while sticking to his principles.
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Today, the battle-scarred president who has met almost uniform resistance from the Republicans sees the world differently, or so it seems from the way he talked in Ohio and Pennsylvania. At nearly every stop, he made it clear that he sees November in the starkest of terms and that there can be but one winner. He asked supporters to help deliver a victory in November that would carry a message that his vision is superior to that of the Republicans.
In Maumee, Ohio, under a blazing sun on Thursday, he put it this way: “What’s holding us back from meeting our challenges — it’s not a lack of ideas, it’s not a lack of solutions. What’s holding us back is we’ve got a stalemate in Washington between these two visions of where the country needs to go. And this election is all about breaking that stalemate.”
On Friday morning in Poland, Ohio, just two hours after the latest jobs report showed another month of tepid growth: “We’ve got two fundamentally different ideas about where we should take the country. We’re trying to put Congress to work. And this election is about how we break that stalemate. And the good news is it’s in your power to break this stalemate.”
That is a change from the way he talked as a candidate in 2008. His message then was not so much about either-or choices. That was not the message he delivered when he first appeared on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, nor was it the message he offered the night he scored his breakthrough victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses that launched him toward the White House. He did not talk about elections as tiebreakers between two sides but of a country hungering for a new model for its politics.
“You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents,” he said that night, “to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people . . . You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington; to end the political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition; to build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.”
There was more to his message in 2008, certainly. He ran plenty of negative ads against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican nominee. He drew distinctions between his ideas and those of Republican Party. He ran hard against then-President George W. Bush, especially the war in Iraq, and promised a change in direction.