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Obama’s victory speech: Behind the return of the president’s rhetoric

Judging from Twitter, President Obama's rousing victory speech left most everyone with the same question: Where's that guy been during the 2012 campaign?

There's an answer to that question. The Obama campaign pored through the focus groups and the polls and came to believe that though voters were disappointed with Obama, they didn't really hold the disappointments of the last few years against him. They figured no one could have delivered the kind of hope and change Obama had promised against an economy this bad, a Republican Party this intransigent, a world this dangerous.

But if they were willing to cut Obama some slack, they weren't willing to let him make the same promises a second time. It was understandable that Obama couldn't change Washington, but it was only forgivable so long as he stopped promising to change Washington. Fool me once, and all that.

The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They'd lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals. Rather than stopping the rise of the oceans -- which sounded rather more fantastical before Sandy -- Obama promised to train more teachers and boost manufacturing jobs.

What you saw tonight, however, was that Obama didn't much like being that guy. He still wants to be the guy he was in 2008. He still wants to inspire and to unite. He still wants Americans to feel that the arc of history is bending under their pressure.  He still wants to talk about climate change and election reform and other problems that the Senate is not especially eager to solve.

This has been the tension at the center of the Obama White House for four years now. Hope and change don't go together. The legislative process doesn't leave people feeling very hopeful. But it's the only mechanism the president really has to make change.

Tonight, however, President Obama wasn't trying to get 60 votes in the Senate or to swing a few undecideds in Ohio. Tonight, he had finished the long grind of his last campaign, but he hadn't begun the hard work of his second term. Tonight, he could be the candidate of both hope and change, if only for a little while.



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Ezra Klein · November 6, 2012

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