National Review editor Rich Lowry devotes his latest TIME column to a review of key themes then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama espoused during his first nationally televised speech, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
But 2004 was a beautiful mirage. Very little that was distinctive or stirring from the convention speech survived first contact with the reality of Barack Obama. Back then, he lambasted “the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’” Now his campaign is a demolition machine with no regard for the truth. Then, he said, “There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America.” Now he wants to squeeze as many votes as possible out of a few key demographic groups. Then, he lamented how pundits “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” Now he presides over an electorate that is profoundly polarized by him.
Upon his election, Obama acted as any ideologue would. He pushed as much through as often as possible when he had maximal power, without seriously compromising on anything until the Democrats lost control of the House, after which he cut a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. Otherwise, after that electoral rebuke in 2010, he didn’t make an opportunistic jag to the center but doubled down on left-wing populism.
Confronting a Congress of the opposing party, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton cut big deals. Reagan raised the retirement age for Social Security and reformed taxes with Democrats. Clinton reformed welfare and balanced the budget with Republicans. Obama blew up his debt-deal negotiations with Republican House Speaker John Boehner because he didn’t want to be caught settling for less in tax revenue than what congressional Democrats wanted.
The same politician who spoke in 2004 of how “this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come” is not running for re-election this year with a transformative vision or really much of an agenda at all. He wants to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, for about $70 billion a year, when the annual deficit is running at over $1 trillion. On most everything else, he simply hopes something will turn up with the same congressional Republicans he scorns.