Barack Obama Shouldn’t Have Gotten Our Hopes Up

Look back at his 2008 speech and see exactly where the President went wrong.

Unless you’ve been living in an ashram in Gujarat, you’ve no doubt spent the week dodging news from the Democratic National Convention currently underway in Charlotte. If you have been in an ashram, not to worry; you haven’t missed much. Political events like the DNC (and last week’s Republican National Convention) typically offer little of substance for the average voter. They’re bubblegum for true believers and cheesecake for pundits—or Soylent Green, depending on your level of cynicism. Mine is pretty high, so when I sit down to watch the President accept his party’s nomination tonight, I won’t put too much stock into what he says. There are few things less endearing than a politician vying for reelection.

Instead I’ll be thinking about the speech he made nearly four years ago in Chicago—after beating John McCain in the 2008 election—as thousands of his supporters cheered and cried, and eight dark years of George W. Bush seemed to momentarily vanish into a great, big shining flash of light.

“It’s been a long time coming,” the President-elect said, “but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” Change did come to America, but not the post-partisan, “all-in-this-together” kind candidate-Obama envisioned. Over the past four years the political divide has become more like a chasm where, for the first time ever, partisan affiliation divides Americans more than gender, age, race or class. We’re gnawing at each others’ throats like caged rats.

It’s not Obama’s fault, though; he’s been no better or worse than most presidents (who have few powers of their own and get things done mainly by building relationships in Congress, where the real power resides). Obama’s mistake was dreaming big, and allowing us to do the same.  And in the end, that could wind up being his downfall.  The President talked a good game; he still does. But he underestimated the opposition at his peril. He was practicing the words to Kumbayah when he should have been sharpening his claws.

Watch the President’s victory speech today, and you’ll see a youthful and energetic Obama with a lot less gray hair and the clear eyes of a man who truly believes he can make a difference. He was frank about the challenges he would face, reminding America of the “enormity” of the task ahead. “There will be setbacks and false starts,” he warned. But with his “Yes We Can” mantra still ringing in our ears, those of us who wanted to believe nominated Obama Jack Kennedy reincarnate, replete with all the mythology that attends a promising leader cut down in his prime. Except unlike Kennedy, Obama is still a living president, and he has to govern, which is something the opposition has steadfastly refused to let him do.

When President Obama came into office, the road to success was so littered with obstacles—two wars, the highest budget deficit in our nation’s history and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression—that it made you wonder why anyone would want the job at all. From the moment he assumed the presidency, he was assaulted by his political enemies with accusations of being a Muslim (like there’s something wrong with that), a socialist (despite being to the right of Richard Nixon on domestic policy), and a foreigner. And if that wasn’t bad enough, barely a year later, a motley band of Tea Party activists angered over the bank bailouts orchestrated by his predecessor joined together to squelch any momentum the President managed to eek out.

“The single most important thing we want to achieve,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

(Get that? The highest Republican legislator in the land said publicly that, in the midst of a crippling financial crisis, rising unemployment and the largest wealth gap in American history, his most important task was to unseat America’s duly elected executive.)

But against this backdrop of adversity, in the end it may be the myth of Obama itself that proves to be the President’s undoing. The great arbiter of post-partisan Washington had to concede defeat (or a significantly watered-down version of victory) on important initiatives because he lacked the ability to arbitrate. America expected a miracle cure and when it failed to materialize, the easiest person to blame was the one who sold it to us.

“The road ahead will be long,” president-elect Obama said in 2008. “We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”

Yes, the President knew one term might not be enough; and he told us so. Still, after four years, the knowledge that “it could be a lot worse” is not exactly a grand sales pitch. But in life, hard truths are always better than the hard sell, even if they hurt a little more.

The bottom line: Obama 2008 will be a tough act to follow, even for the man who orchestrated it. With many former supporters expressing buyer’s remorse, and the GOP reaping the fruits of two congressional sessions worth of obstructionist policy, the President’s last, best hope may lie in Mitt Romney’s inability to inspire any.