On the fundraising circuit these days, President Obama tells two stories. The first is his public story, the one about Republican obstruction of his proposal to inject more tax cuts and spending into the economy. It is a timeless political tale, a good-guy, bad-guy drama that argues Democrats are fighting for the country while Republicans fight for political position.
The second story is a private one, directed at Obama’s core supporters, and it is likely to be far more consequential. It is a story of inner struggle, of unfulfilled dreams, second thoughts and disappointment. It is, Obama hopes, a redemption tale. Here is how the President laid it out on Monday night, in a high-dollar fundraiser at the home of James Lassiter, the long time manager of movie star Will Smith.
This election will not be as sexy as the first one. Back then, I was–it was–still fresh and new, and I didn’t have any gray hair, and everybody loved the “Hope” posters and all that. But this time it’s — we’ve got to grind it out a little bit. We’ve got to grind it out. But the cause is the same, and my passion is the same, and my commitment is the same. And so I hope all of you will join me, because I’m confident if you do that we’re going to win.
This story is obviously a lot more complicated to tell. Notice, for instance, that in the course of six sentences, Obama uses the word “hope” to mean two very different things. The first is the big hope of the 2008 campaign, an infinitely large vessel that contained all the sometimes conflicting the dreams of the nation—for economic revival, greater equality, greater justice, and everything else. The magic of the 2008 campaign, as Obama offers it, was the Hope poster, which was just that, an abstract idea, a vision without borders or limits.
The second “hope” is the small hope of the current campaign: For reelection. “And so I hope all of you will join me,” Obama says, “because I’m confident if you do that we’re going to win.” Earlier in the same speech before celebrities like Magic Johnson, Obama defined what a second term would mean. It would allow him to complete his list of legislative and policy priorities.
Sometimes I think people forget how much has gotten done — whether it’s passing health care for 30 million Americans who didn’t have it, and making sure that young people are able to stay on their parents’ health insurance and insurance companies aren’t dropping you when you’ve got coverage, to making sure that we were ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” so that anybody could serve this country that they love regardless of who they love, to ending the war in Iraq, to making sure that college loans and scholarships were accessible to young people all across the country, to saving the auto industry. A lot of the things that we promised we’d do, we’ve done. And I carry around a little checklist, and I think we’ve gotten about 60 percent of it done so far. And that’s not bad for three years, because I need another five.
Here lies Obama’s problem. In 2008, Obama supporters were able to vote for an idea—“Hope” on a poster–with all its transformational implications. In 2012, Obama is offering his supporters a chance to vote for the remaining 40% of a to-do list. Even worse, it is a list that has so far failed to deliver what most Americans wanted, an end to the decade long slide in American prosperity. The hope of 2008 was transcendent. The hope of 2012 is transactional.
It will be a tough sell. Obama’s aides say they are not so worried because they can run against a Republican opponent, who may be offering the American people even less appealing options. But that may be small consolation for the millions of Americans who found themselves drawn to politics for the first time in 2008. To reignite that flame, Obama will have to offer something for them to believe in again. As of now, that something has not been defined. A list is not enough.