“We’re not going back. . . . We’re going forward,” President Obama said during his formal campaign kickoff in Ohio. This rallying cry was pedestrian, and appropriately so. Obama is no longer a leader on horseback. His campaign — on the evidence of its first day — will be a long, unimaginative, partisan march to the sea.
Gone are the vast ambitions of national progress and healing. In Ohio on Saturday, Obama made a methodical appeal to various voting blocks — college-educated women, gays, Hispanics. He waded into the culture war on abortion, something he rarely did four years ago. And he accused the GOP of trickle-down hostility to the middle class.
To every interest group, a sop. On every wedge issue, a swat. To every class enemy, a turn in the tumbrel. Obama has gone “forward” all the way to the strategy of Walter Mondale.
The president may persuade voters with this message, but he apparently has given up trying to inspire them. And this is not a small thing, since the Obama brand once consisted mainly of inspiration.
The brand of the Obama reelection campaign, so far, is ruthlessness. It has accused Mitt Romney of being soft on Osama bin Laden. It has singled out some Romney donors by name for public attack. Romney, we are informed, enjoys shipping jobs abroad, which is “just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.” Obama has accused Republican congressional opponents of social Darwinism and indifference to autistic children.
U.S. politics has a long history of ruthlessness, which is not always a Nixon-like negative. Franklin Roosevelt matched the ruthlessness of dictators in his defense of democracy. Lyndon Johnson ruthlessly broke filibusters in pursuit of civil rights legislation. Robert Kennedy reportedly joked about his reputation: “I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”
There is a political case for Obama’s early, hardball tactics. It has Democrats excited. Liberals — who have occasionally complained that Obama is not confrontational enough — are no longer complaining.
But there are downsides as well. Obama is already one of the most consistently polarizing presidents of the last 60 years. His current campaign strategy, win or lose, will deepen our national divisions. It was unreasonable to believe that Obama could reverse the long-term political trend toward polarization. But it is still sad when a leader ceases to fight the current.
Obama’s political identity is particularly vulnerable to inconsistency on this issue. More than any recent presidential candidate, his initial appeal was based on changing the political atmosphere. He would end the “partisan food fight.” There are no red or blue states, he said, just the United States.
Obama’s agenda, strategy and rhetoric are now solidly blue — perhaps for sound political reasons. But Obama’s talent for inspiration was the single most interesting thing about him as a politician. Without that aspiration, what is left of his appeal? This is the reason his Ohio speech seemed so boring, particularly in comparison to his speeches four years ago. There was little that couldn’t be said by any liberal politician, at any time. Obama has lost more than a campaign talking point; he has lost one of the main reasons for his rise.
What principle or purpose unites Obama’s initial campaign with his current reelection effort? There is little obvious continuity — apart from one, unchanging commitment. The cause that has outlasted hope and change is Obama himself.
There have always been two parts of Obama’s political persona, both of which were essential to his rapid advancement. There is the Hyde Park Obama, lecturing on constitutional law, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr and transcending old political divisions. There is also the South Side Obama, who rose in Chicago politics by doing what it takes.
This is not unusual. All politicians believe that their tenacity and competitiveness are servants to their idealism. But as the Hyde Park Obama fades, the South Side Obama becomes less appealing.
All of the atmospheric elements of politics — unity, bipartisanship and common purpose — are significantly worse than four years ago. This is not all Obama’s fault. But he is choosing — in a campaign so nasty, so early — to make it worse. At some point, ruthlessness just leaves ruins.