President Barack Obama stood before his party’s nominating convention last night for the second time in four years an older and – to my ears – a humbler man. “The times have changed,” he said. “And so have I.”
He will leave it to the voters to color in the details of what that change means. Is this a signal that he has learned to be more combative against intransigent Republicans, as many in his base have demanded? Is it a recognition that sweeping initiatives like universal healthcare simply take too much oxygen out of an administration, and that more defensive, incremental moves will define a second term?
In both tone and words, Obama mostly was saying that the crucible of the presidency in times of war and economic hardship had tempered him, making him stronger and wiser. This time it is the Republican nominee who is naïve and untested, given to gauzy rhetoric about prosperity without revealing the dirty details of how he’ll get us there.
There were other changes, sometimes surprising. Thanks to a strong, even bold, foreign policy under Obama – and the callowness of Mitt Romney – Democrats find themselves in a better position on national security issues, traditionally a strength for Republicans. This was evident in the focus on returning war wounded and vice-president Joe Biden’s gleeful bumper sticker: “Osama is dead; GM is alive.” The convention ‘word cloud’ assembled by the New York Times shows that Democrats mentioned “war,” “military” and “veteran” far more often than did Republicans at their convention. Tellingly, the Republicans did not utter the words “Osama bin Laden” at all.
I was in that Denver stadium four years ago, and watching on television last night, so you have to factor in the difference in atmospherics – nothing is as thrilling on television as it live. Even so, Obama in 2012 is more grounded in specifics, more self-critical, more thoughtful, and more inclusive.
This last change is particularly welcome, and a departure from the “great man of history’’ approach that defined the 2008 campaign. Obama’s appeal to citizenship in his speech last night, his deft turning around the 2008 slogan to emphasize that other Americans give him hope, was a strong appeal to voters to stand by him for another term. And it is in harmony with his party’s guiding philosophy – in a nutshell: “We’re all in this together.” Republicans, on the other hand, underscored the contrast with a convention message extolling the individual: “You’re on your own.”