Barack Obama’s star-turn speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston sounds just as good now as it did eight years ago. It was hours before that performance that Obama told a reporter, “I’m LeBron, baby!” The boast is considered sheer hubris by his detractors, but it wasn’t such a bad self-assessment. The background noise of Obama’s 2004 speech is the low rumble of a political rocket about to slip the surly bonds of earth.
In the C-SPAN footage, Jesse Jackson stands and applauds, not realizing how thoroughly he would be eclipsed by the young African-American politician from Illinois. Hillary Clinton brims with joy, having no idea that she would be beaten by the newcomer for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. “OH-BAH-MAH!” chants fill the arena — the first time most of the nation hears the name that will soon enough become iconic.
“Political genius,” Otto von Bismarck once said, “consists of hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails.” Obama’s speech in Boston was the first sign that he was about to grab hold for a hell of a ride.
But 2004 was a beautiful mirage. Very little that was distinctive or stirring from the convention speech survived first contact with the reality of Barack Obama. Back then, he lambasted “the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’” Now his campaign is a demolition machine with no regard for the truth. Then, he said, “There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America.” Now he wants to squeeze as many votes as possible out of a few key demographic groups. Then, he lamented how pundits “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” Now he presides over an electorate that is profoundly polarized by him.
Upon his election, Obama acted as any ideologue would. He pushed as much through as often as possible when he had maximal power, without seriously compromising on anything until the Democrats lost control of the House, after which he cut a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. Otherwise, after that electoral rebuke in 2010, he didn’t make an opportunistic jag to the center but doubled down on left-wing populism.
Confronting a Congress of the opposing party, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton cut big deals. Reagan raised the retirement age for Social Security and reformed taxes with Democrats. Clinton reformed welfare and balanced the budget with Republicans. Obama blew up his debt-deal negotiations with Republican House Speaker John Boehner because he didn’t want to be caught settling for less in tax revenue than what congressional Democrats wanted.
The same politician who spoke in 2004 of how “this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come” is not running for re-election this year with a transformative vision or really much of an agenda at all. He wants to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, for about $70 billion a year, when the annual deficit is running at over $1 trillion. On most everything else, he simply hopes something will turn up with the same congressional Republicans he scorns.
Obama is trying to win a second term with a remorseless assault against Mitt Romney. From the beginning, his aides have been frank about the need to destroy the Republican challenger. Insider accounts of the Obama campaign reveal no evidence of the President’s feeling the slightest prick of conscience over it. In fact, his team seems suffused with a grim pride over its willingness to do whatever it takes to win. In 2004, Obama was a bipartisan uniter; in 2012, he’s Al Davis.
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Not that he was really ever anything different. For all the alluring mood music in the 2004 speech, he didn’t break any philosophical ground. He wasn’t Bill Clinton challenging party orthodoxy. He rebaptized Democratic Party orthodoxy in a warm bath of pious uplift. He wasn’t interested in compromise; he wanted unity entirely on his own terms.
Obama has never been a moderate, not in the Illinois legislature, not in the U.S. Senate and not in his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. What he was until he assumed the presidency was essentially an unknown. Well, now we know.
The President can always return to the tropes of his 2004 speech, but there’s no real going back. He might survive. But he won’t inspire. On that memorable night in Boston eight years ago, he launched his national career on a bright, shining lie.