Obama grapples with memories of 2008 hope, change

September 27, 2011 - 2:10 PM
Obama

President Barack Obama waves after a Democratic fundraiser at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Remember when Barack Obama first ran for president and people were really into him?

Obama remembers it, too, but not the same way some of his supporters do.

Bidding for re-election in tough economic times, Obama says there is some "revisionist history" going on about how great that first race was.

His strategy is to bring disillusioned supporters back into the fold by addressing their feelings of discouragement head-on and reminding them they signed up for something tough to begin with — even if now they just remember the "hope" and "change" posters.

And he's telling them bluntly they will have to be even more determined and find different sources of inspiration this time around since he is not the fresh face.

"I'm grayer, I'm all dinged up," Obama told a Hollywood fundraiser crowd Monday night. "And those old posters everybody has got in their closet, they're all dog-eared and faded. And so the energy of 2008 is going to have to be generated in a different way."

The approach is one Obama almost has to take if he's to reconcile memories of his historic 2008 campaign with the dispiriting realities of governing a divided country amid a sagging economy and unemployment topping 9 percent.

On Tuesday Obama was traveling to Denver, the city where he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination three years ago before an adoring crowd of 80,000. Tuesday's event, a speech at a high school to promote his jobs plan, isn't an attempt to recreate that spectacle or recapture that energy.

But the contrast does underscore how much harder it can be to inspire as president than as candidate. On Tuesday Obama was to push for a nearly $450 billion jobs plan that has little if any chance of getting through a divided Congress.

It's a far cry from three years ago in Denver when the president told the huge crowd, "It's time for us to change America."

It would have been tough for the realities of the Obama presidency, with its deal-making and compromises, to compete with the inspirations of the Obama campaign under the best of circumstances. He's encountered far from the best, with the tough economy and Republicans attacking him at every turn.

But for Obama, the disillusionment goes even deeper than the political reality that governing is harder and uglier than campaigning.

Obama's campaign was premised on the notion of uniting the country and changing the very way Washington worked. But that's something he's acknowledged he failed to do.

So now, as he asks voters to send him back to Washington for another four years, it's no longer as a potentially transformational figure campaigning for unity, but as a battle-scarred politician campaigning, as politicians do, against the opposition.

"He is, of course, like any savvy campaigner, trying to lower expectations and motivate the base by underscoring his need for and want of campaign energy," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

Obama, with his approval ratings sinking into the 40s, appears to recognize as well as anyone the disconnect between the lofty rhetoric of then and the partisan reality of now. It helps explain why he finds himself needing to yank supporters out of wishful memories of the way things were.

Addressing supporters in a wealthy Seattle suburb Sunday night, Obama remarked of 2008: "There is a lot of revisionist history that says our campaign was perfect and we never had any problems, and it was all just the big 'hope' posters, and everybody was feeling good, Bruce Springsteen singing.

"That wasn't how it felt when I was in the middle of it," Obama said. "So this stuff is always hard. But this is going to be especially hard, because a lot of people are discouraged and a lot of people are disillusioned."

In fact, on the night he won election in 2008, Obama tried to caution even his most elated supporters to brace themselves for a hard period of governing.

"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep," Obama said that night from Grant Park in Chicago. "We may not get there in one year or even one term."

This time around, he tells supporters, he will be focused on painting a clear contrast between his vision of America and the GOP approach, which he charged would "cripple" the country over the long term. That one pivot — from campaigning on hope and unity to attacking the GOP — sums up just how different things are this time around for Obama.

And yet, Obama is trying, too, not to abandon his initial message. He has his own hope — that supporters can find some of their excitement from his historic campaign.

"All that 'hopey, changey stuff,' as they say, that was real," he said in New York last week. To supporters in Seattle Obama added: "I hope that all of you end up, despite the ups and down inevitable in a campaign, that you guys will be just as excited on inauguration day of 2013 as you were inauguration day 2009."