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.
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.
But what resonated most was the aspirational side of his message. The country would meet its challenges only one way — together. Contrast that with the way he talked about the election as the sun was setting Thursday night in a park in Parma, Ohio. “There are two fundamentally different visions about how we move the country forward,” he said. “And the great thing about our democracy is you get to be the tiebreaker.”
There are obvious reasons why he sees things differently today. All presidents are changed by their experiences, and Obama’s battles, including polarized fights over the stimulus, health care, financial regulatory reform and ultimately the showdown over the debt ceiling, have given him a different perspective.
The turn came last summer. At this time in 2011, Obama was in the middle of negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to raise the debt ceiling, talks that included a grand bargain to reduce the deficit and to begin to deal with the future costs of entitlement programs. Those talks later collapsed, amid recriminations and finger pointing.
Out of that debacle has come the rhetoric, from both sides, that frames the choice between the president and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the starkest of terms. Both Obama and Romney genuinely believe the other’s vision is deeply flawed, even dangerous for the country.
On both sides, it is a choice between black and white with little in between. On one side, it is seen as the threat of big government, shackles on the economy and an end to freedom. On the other side, it is seen as shredding the middle class in order to reward the rich. Swing voters in the middle are being asked to pick one side or the other, not to aspire to become part of the kind of united coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents that Obama talked about in 2008.
Many Democrats say it’s about time that the president got tough, that he spent too much time trying to negotiate with Republicans who weren’t interested in negotiating with him. At the White House, the 2012 campaign really began in the aftermath of the debt ceiling debate. Let the voters settle what Washington politicians cannot.
The president may believe that by asking voters to break the tie — by delivering him a second term — Americans would be voting for an end to stalemated politics in Washington — sending a message to Republicans that they should finally start to bargain with him rather than opposing him.
So as he spoke across Ohio’s northern tier, there were faint echoes of 2008. “I’m not a Democrat first,” he told the audience in Maumee. “I’m an American first. I believe we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. And I believe what’s stopping us is not our capacity to meet our challenges. What’s stopping us is our politics. And that’s something you have the power to solve.”
But at its core, Obama’s message has shifted. The urgency in his appeal is grounded in his conviction that this is an election about ideas and policies and political philosophies, that the country faces a crucial moment and a clear choice. The country is in a far different place than it was when he first ran for office, and he is in a far different battle. And he has decided how he will fight it between now and November.
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