With the 2008 Democratic primary race all but won, Barack Obama appeared at a massive outdoor rally here and delivered a message that was unique by the cutthroat standards of American political campaigns.
“We’re not going to worry about what other folks are doing,” Obama told a crowd of 75,000 at the waterfront event in May 2008. “We’re going to try to focus on what we think we can do for America.”
Obama returned to Portland on Wednesday night and delivered a different sort of speech. His message of national unity and reconciliation had been replaced by a stark warning against cynical Republican tactics, vague threats to America’s political system and the urgent need to keep the GOP marginalized.
There was less hope, more fear.
Obama conveyed much the same message Thursday during a rally in Seattle, and the appeal is not expected to vary significantly as he campaigns in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Minneapolis over the next two days.
Obama in Portland suggested that “foreign-controlled corporations” were bankrolling a “misleading, negative” ad campaign that serves Republicans, but offered no evidence.
“We don’t know,” he said.
Whereas his 2008 speech said that Americans needed to “start trusting each other again, start working together again,” he said at the Oregon Convention Center rally this week that even if Republicans cooperate more with the White House, they would be forced to “sit in the back seat.”
Two years ago, he said Americans are “tired of a politics that’s all about tearing each other down.” On Wednesday, he painted a grim picture of life under Republican leadership: The chronically ill, the unemployed, the student who can’t afford college tuition — all would be cut “loose to fend for themselves.”
The shift in tone reflects the realities of Obama’s political predicament. With Democrats facing the likelihood of major losses in the midterm election, Obama wants to fire up his base and make sure voters go to the polls. Instead of letting the campaign become a referendum on his first term at a time when the unemployment rate is nearly 10%, Obama is instead framing the election as a clear choice.
David Axelrod, a senior White House advisor who helps craft Obama’s speeches, said the aim was to lay out the stakes in the Nov. 2 election.
“Everything looks different through the gauzy recollections of the past,” said Axelrod when asked how Obama’s message has changed in the last two years. “We offered a fairly strong critique of the Republican policies of 2008.... Every election is a choice. People need to understand what the contrast is.”
Obama has been delivering a similar version of the Portland speech recently. Speaking in Columbus, Ohio, earlier in the week, he imputed a motive to lawmakers who’ve resisted his agenda: Republicans opposed his proposals because they want him to founder, cynically positioning themselves to pick up seats in the upcoming election at the nation’s expense.
Appearing in Boston last week, he told the crowd that with the country facing an historic economic downturn, Republicans “didn’t lift a finger to help.”
The darker message may be rooted in Obama’s experience as president. Nearly two years into the job, the partisan divisions are not going away.
“As a candidate in 2008, Obama made an appealing but naive promise to bring Republicans and Democrats together in Washington and end the bitter partisan standoff,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies and writes about governance. “He learned that was easier said than done.
“He is now giving voice to a reality that he was hesitant to accept.”