Scan reports of Barack Obama’s rallies from the final hours of this campaign and you might think you accidentally clicked on something from 2008.
Republicans were “betting on cynicism,” Obama told his supporters at a rally in Mentor, Ohio, on Saturday, but “my bet is on hope.” The gray-haired candidate seeking reelection suddenly closed his campaign as he opened his first one: arguing he is still the true candidate of change.
To those who watched a long campaign more focused on factors like the economy, and which candidate best understands the problems facing average Americans, the return to an old theme may have seemed jarring or anachronistic.
But beneath the very real pocketbook concerns and personality contrasts driving today’s election lurks another question, as voters choose between one candidate who promised a new politics but failed to fully realize it (by his own account), versus a conventional politician gliding along on the skates of political expediency. When voters invest in transformational change but don’t see an immediate return, what do they do next?
In 2008, the American people were wary and beaten down. Two wars, n historic recession looming, and bitter divides in Washington had them hankering for a new political approach.
It was against that backdrop that Obama, a senator of two years, threw his hat into the ring and, with impeccable timing, offered a starving electorate what it sought most: a new kind of politics.
“I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” Obama told the nation in declaring his candidacy nearly six years ago, “but I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”
Under this utopian vision would come a new democratic process. Gone would be the influence of high-powered corporate lobbyists who not only dominate a busy street in the capital, but our legislative system. No longer would leaders triangulate or compromise beliefs for political benefit. And the old days of closed-door negotiations would be replaced with a new era of unparalleled transparency.
These promises, coming from a youthful, charismatic candidate, whose election would be historic in its own right, offered unusual allure not only to the usual Democratic coalition, but scores of Republicans, young people, and the formerly apathetic. It was a vision of a new dawn that inspired a disenchanted nation.
But then an unfortunate thing happened: After Obama won, and the celebrating was over. It was time to govern and make good on those promises.
As it happens, fundamentally changing the way Washington works is not easy. Undoing decades of ingrained Beltway culture, persuading legislators with competing interests to shed their partisan skin, sticking to your guns in the face of political pressure — these are goals that may take more time to achieve than just the fierce urgency of now.
“None of the problems we face will be easily solved,” Obama’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, had warned during the 2008 primary, "Now, I could stand up here and say, let's just get everybody together, lets get unified. The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
“Maybe I’ve just lived a little long,” she continued. “But I have no illusions about how hard this will be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and make the special interests disappear."
It is a grand irony that Obama’s strongest defense for failing to achieve his politics of hope is that his fiercest opponent, Clinton, was right: Reinventing government was a task that few, if any, could have achieved. The problem for Obama was that he had promised to do just that. And, well-intentioned or not, this was an overpromise.
Rather than usher in a new politics of hope and change, leading Democrats would admit four years later what scarcely needed to be said: Instead of a fundamentally changed Washington, we got lobbyists writing major legislation and meeting administration officials outside the White House to avoid detection; trade agreements secretly negotiated behind closed doors that expand corporate power; conventional, bitter obstructionism; and backtracking on measures designed to promote democratic engagement in the legislative process, to name a few.
To be fair, there have been real achievements too. Thanks to the most impactful social legislation of its time, almost all Americans will now have health coverage. Osama bin Laden has been captured. The Iraq War has been winding down. The auto industry has been rescued. The stimulus stanched serious economic bleeding and contained critical measures to aid struggling Americans.
And there were, to be fair, serious impediments to doing even more. A Republican congress resolutely opposed to working with Obama. An historically troubled economy. Two wars.
But the signature promise made was a transformative, new kind of politics. And the candidate who’d pledged to transcend the partisan divide, broadcast meetings on C-SPAN, and rid the system of the influence of lobbyists, did not.
Obama wasn’t the first, by a long shot, to promise he’d deliver transformative change; but he was the first in a long time who people thought might actually get it done. The result: a generation of voters who believed in hope, but were let down.
Where hope fails, cynicism and expediency try to swoop in and prey. Into such a landscape entered the other major candidate in this race.
Mitt Romney did not traffic in such idealistic virtues. He did not promise he’d change the more corrosive practices in Washington. He did not attempt to be consistent or pure of principle. He didn’t pledge transparency. He didn’t even pretend to practice it during this campaign, for Pete’s sake.
Quite often, these would be nonstarters for a hungry politician. The American people have elected three straight presidents spanning the last two decades who ran as outsiders bent on ridding Washington of its insidious ills. And on policy, flip-flopping on a few core issues, let alone one’s entire ideology, has rarely been a workable approach for a candidate at this level.
John Kerry was caricatured in 2004 as a flip-flopper for a few errant statements and for some contradictory votes over a decades-long senate career filled with multi-issue legislative votes. Romney was something more brazen.
A gay rights devotee who would be stronger on the issue than Ted Kennedy, who then switches to opposing gay marriage and civil unions. A pro-choice stalwart who will never waver on it, who becomes a defender of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion (before switching back in the general election to someone who has no legislative agenda on abortion). The proud signer of an assault weapons ban who now opposes one. The architect of a massive state health insurance expansion, who supported basing a national version on it, before opposing it (despite the fact it was written by the same aide who crafted his). A self-described independent who opposed Reagan-Bush who’s now a strong adherent of Reagan.
A reflection of both Obama’s failure to fully realize his new politics and Romney’s embrace of opportunistic expediency is that before his final, last-minute shift back to “I’ll change Washington,” Obama’s driving message in recent weeks was a Bush-like, “You may not agree with every decision I have made, but you know where I stand.” For Romney’s part, instead of articulating why he’d achieve a new politics more effectively than did Obama, he discarded the goal altogether, in favor of a strict economic message.
“We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. They will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come,” Obama warned supporters in 2008. “We've been asked to pause for a reality check; we've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.”
“But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope,” he continued. “For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.”
The next line, of course, was, "Yes we can." Four years later, Mitt Romney is counting on the American people to say, "No we couldn’t."
This is the question playing out beneath the surface of today’s election. Will those whose hearts were broken by hope now turn away, and forsake it for cynicism?