The most telling line of President Obama’s convention speech was “Times have changed, and so have I.” Obama used it to segue into the grim burdens of sending soldiers off to war and consoling the parents of those who died. But it also seemed to symbolize his broader transformation. Very much like an idealist who enlisted in war and has now seen its ugliness, Obama approaches his job now with more depth, less hope, and more determination to see it through.
The speech came, by and large, as a disappointment to political journalists and other campaign junkies. We have heard almost all of it before. The speech was probably aimed at undecided voters, who spend almost no time following politics. They received the paint-by-numbers outline of the election choice.
Obama correctly presented the Republican demand for reducing taxes on the rich as the central conflict of the election, and of American politics as a whole. Regressive tax cuts are the GOP cure-all for any and all economic and fiscal circumstances. (Obama: "Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.") They are also the main cause of partisan discord. The president signaled his willingness to compromise in all sorts of areas, but drew a line at cutting taxes for the rich while imposing sacrifice on the non-rich:
No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise. But when Governor Romney and his allies in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficit by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy – well, you do the math. I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I'm President, I never will.
Wrapped around this specific policy fight, Obama weaved a larger communitarian theme. In his broadly accurate telling, he stands for a mix of individual and collective responsibility against a Republican Party that holds everybody responsible for his own fate. It might sound like a straw man, except that the GOP has, in both its fiscal blueprint and its rhetorical embrace of Job Creators Who Built That, actually fulfilled the stereotype. Obama poured vast swaths of American society and history into the communitarian frame – soldiers, teachers, public-spirited business owners, and so on – all in some sense emblemizing shared responsibility.
[T]he election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change. You're the reason there's a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who'll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can't limit her coverage. You did that.
You're the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he'd be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.
This theme appeared in Obama’s rhetoric four years ago, too. If there’s a difference between now and then, it is this: During his first campaign, Obama saw the blend of individual and communal responsibility as the obvious, shared belief of the entire country. Now he has come to see it as the belief of an embattled half of America.