On the morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, Frances X. Clines of the New York Times captured a revealing episode. As he shared with readers the next morning, a crowded subway in Washington threatened to become an ugly scene, passengers pressed together, exits jammed, tempers fraying. The station master made the mistake of announcing: “Don’t panic.”
Then, in an instant, the station master recovered, pitch perfect. He began to chant rhythmically, “O-ba-ma!” As quickly, the crowd joined him, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” A calm returned, along with the mood of celebration, passengers taking an orderly and respectful path out of the station.
Clines then added, “All the long day, it was like that. The new president’s name, simply his name, was just the restorative the enormous crowds needed.” Such were the soaring expectations.
As the president reminded his audience on Thursday evening at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, “I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick and easy. I never have.” His campaign, even his acceptance speech four years ago, did contained such cautionary words. Yet that wasn’t the leading impression of “hope,” “change,” and “yes, we can.”
Obama the candidate ran as so many others have — as a Washington outsider. What proved so distinctive was his powerful voice and personal story, historic no less, plus an urgent summoning of the country to renew its promise. In their way, the candidate and the campaign fanned the expectations, the grand talk of transformation, under his leadership a rancorous, poisoned Washington reclaiming the idea of civic virtue.
That fanning surfaced in New Hampshire, Obama battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. During a debate as the primary election approached, Clinton tried to make the point about her opponent as an eloquent speaker but something less than a proven agent of change.
Clinton recalled the roles of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson in the struggle to enact civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. “I would point to the fact,” she argued, “that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done.”
She then added: “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.”
No need to recall the tempest that followed, both sides tightly wound and on edge. Obama tapped Clinton as his secretary of state, an effective partnership launched. The New Hampshire episode came to mind listening to the president deliver his acceptance speech last week, especially when he declared: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
There was an assertiveness, an expression of strength. Yet the tone and words also suggested a chastened leader, a recognition of all that goes into a presidency, the responsibility, complexity, the navigating of many cross currents, in particular, a public inspired yet divided over what course change should take.
A moment later Obama offered a glimpse into the job, knowing the heartbreak of mothers and fathers who have lost children in battle, or families who have lost their homes, or workers their jobs.
He continued: “And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’ ”
The president prefaced this section with an acknowledgement: “The times have changed, and so have I.” Here was humility at work. He asked directly “for your vote.” His familiar riff about the election being about-you-and-not-about-me resonated with a depth shaped by experience.
He took up the hard job of recasting hope. To be sure, he had to do so as part of the campaign. Yet this part of the speech worked well because it aimed to recalculate expectations greatly in need of adjustment, the refiguring not simply about winning but necessary in view of how outlandish the expectations were.
How does someone look at the past two decades of escalating partisan crossfire in the capital, and conclude that this time a single “outsider” will transform things?
Actually, the president has accomplished much more, at home and abroad, than the struggling economy suggests. One shortcoming has been communication, relaying how things have gotten better, damage averted, pieces in place for something stronger. Yet that is how advances often are made today, slowly, part by part, even a makeover of health care.
The president caught a break when weather forced his acceptance speech indoors, no stadium, a smaller venue. That disappointed many supporters. The setting fit the occasion, a president contending with what he cannot easily change.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.