C HARLOTTE — What do you do after hope and change have failed?
This was the question Barack Obama needed to answer in accepting his party’s nomination for a second term Thursday night. Borne into office on the wings of those two words and their promise of a new “post partisan” nation, Obama saw that promise promptly swamped by Republicans who waged a fierce campaign of obstructionism.
Granted, this is not how Mitt Romney remembers it. At the GOP convention in Tampa, he spun a dewy-eyed fable about how Republicans were really, really rooting for the president to succeed but then, gosh darn, he up and disappointed them. But one need only recall Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declaring it his party’s top priority to deny the president a second term to know what a fib that is. Contrary to wishing the president success, Rush Limbaugh, poet laureate of the GOP, said the exact opposite: “I hope he fails.”
So from the beginning, the GOP refused to do. Then, it used the resultant gridlock to blame the president for divisiveness and ineptitude. It was a cynical strategy of legislative malpractice that left Obama looking not unlike Peter Parker pre-spider bite, a hapless nebbish figuratively shoved into his locker, metaphorically robbed of his lunch money.
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Thursday’s speech, then, was the coming out party for the Obama 2.0 that has emerged over the last year, the one who no longer begs the GOP to play nice, the one who takes unilateral action, the one who stands up a little more readily for what he believes, and is not above the occasional cheap shot. It was not the best speech of the convention — Michelle Obama gave that. It was not the best argument for a second term. Bill Clinton made that. But it was a feisty, combative address — a metric of how the man who promised hope and change has, himself, been changed.
Obama needled the opposition at every turn and drew repeated lines in the sand: “I refuse to . . . ” “I will not . . . ” Obama even implicitly rebuked the patron saint of Republicanism, Ronald Reagan (peace be unto him) who famously said, “ . . . Government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.”
Replied the 44th president to the 40th: “We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems any more than our welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
Still, Obama 2.0 was not completely dissimilar from the earlier version whose eloquent calls to higher, common ground once braced a division-weary electorate. He reframed John F. Kennedy’s enduring call to service (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ”) and reminded his audience that being an American is more than chanting “USA! USA!” on cue or watching your stock portfolio rise.
“We also believe,” he said, “in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”
Once upon a time, we might not have needed the reminder. That was before the GOP embraced a mantra which might be summed up as, “I’ve got mine.”
Weeks away from a particularly consequential election, one can’t help wishing Obama 1.0 had been vindicated, had been able to return us to the days when Republicans and Democrats still understood that there is a time to trade your party hat for your statesman hat.
But we must deal with the world as it is. And in that world, Obama seems to have found the only answer he could. What do you do after hope and change?
Stand and fight.