In his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama neatly transformed the hope and change of 2008 that centered on him into a voter-centered hope and change for 2012.
"So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me,” the president said. "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.
"You're the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she's ever called home; why selfless soldiers won't be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: 'Welcome home.'"
As he asked for their votes, this was his way of reassuring the people who put him in office four years ago that their choice made a significant difference. Obama needed to reclaim the faith of those who were so enraptured by him as a fresh, historic candidate. Expectations for him in 2008 were so unrealistically high and the challenge facing him as he came into office so daunting, disappointment was inevitable.
Yet, Obama's catalog of accomplishments is actually impressive. Besides eliminating Osama bin Laden, saving the American automobile industry, ending the Iraq war and remaking healthcare, the biggest success was rescuing the nation from a free fall into an economic abyss. Republicans would certainly dispute some of these credits, but anyone who has felt disappointment with Obama's tenure in office while still liking the guy might feel happily reassured.
In his speech, Obama was asking doubters to develop some political maturity, to dispense with cynicism and act as citizens.
"If you turn away now -- if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible ... well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10-million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control healthcare choices that women should make for themselves.
"Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward."
This convention showed that Obama plans to turn defense of his record into an offense. He described the continuing economic malaise -- what Republicans would say is his biggest vulnerability -- as evidence of a cleanup job so huge that no one could expect him to get it done in just four years. Defining his successes as markers on a hopeful path forward, he asked voters to continue the journey, letting go of regrets about following him in the first place.
The simple Democratic slogan for this campaign -- "forward" -- will take on real resonance if the Obama team can sell the perception that progress is being made while the other side simply wants to take the country back to the bad old days of 2008. Voters may not be completely happy about where they are now, but they are more likely to stick with Obama if they are convinced Mitt Romney is merely George W. Bush in a thin disguise.