When he ran for president in 2008, candidate Barack Obama argued for a new kind of politics, something beyond the usual partisan divide and more than the typical backbiting that often led to paralysis. After two years of ideological battles over healthcare and the economy, Obama announced on Monday that he will seek another term and, according to his recent comments, will likely try to bring back the same post-partisan theme, coupled with frequent statements that he has achieved the changes he has promised.
Running for reelection is different than running for the first time because the incumbent has a record that voters can evaluate. Obama will cite healthcare insurance overhaul, his administration’s response to the recession and his foreign policy, which includes winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that record also serves as a target for Obama’s opponents, who will argue the president has failed to show early leadership on important issues such as the no-fly zone in Libya. Where the president has acted, Republicans will argue, his policies have been wrongheaded, like his healthcare overhaul or his economic policies.
“Even though I’m focused on the job you elected me to do, and the race may not reach full speed for a year or more, the work of laying the foundation for our campaign must start today,” Obama said in an email to his supporters announcing his candidacy. The president has eschewed the hoopla that often goes with gearing up a campaign for a more quiet entrance, which had been widely expected.
“We’ve always known that lasting change wouldn’t come quickly or easily. It never does,” he said. “But the cause of making a lasting difference for our families, our communities and our country has never been about one person. And it will succeed only if we work together.”
For Obama, the key to working together is the new politics, based on traditional American values and fueled by a need for major change to deal with big problems. While running in 2008, he often sounded those notes.
“I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes, not incremental changes, not small changes,” Obama said early in January 2008. “I think that there are a whole host of Republicans, and certainly independents, who have lost trust in their government, who don’t believe anybody is listening to them, who are staggering under rising costs of healthcare, college education, don’t believe what politicians say. And we can draw those independents and some Republicans into a working coalition, a working majority for change.”
America in 2008 was at a turning point, Obama said at a recent Democratic National Committee event in Washington, where he summarized the needs he saw at the time.
“So our campaign was geared toward the notion that there are time-tested values that bind us together as Americans -- a belief in hard work and individual initiative and the free market, but also community, looking out for one another, embracing diversity -- and that our task was to make sure that we worked hard to seize this moment and make sure that our institutions, our politics, our government were all working to ensure that these values that date back to our founding would be renewed and live for this generation and the next,” he told fellow Democrats.
The president then went on to repeat the themes that will likely be heard over and over in different forms and forums in the next year.
“I think that the American people sensed that. Even when they disagreed with us, I think they sensed that our real objective here was to make sure that we had a government that was worthy of the decency and goodness of the American people,” Obama said “I don’t want us ever to lose that spirit. I don’t want us ever to look back and say, you know what, we said things that we didn’t believe in, or we pursued policies that weren’t the best possible policies for the country, just because it made for smart and convenient politics.”
At another DNC event at the end of March, Obama took on foreign affairs with a reference to his actions on Libya and how the politics of post-partisanship along with change extended to the international arena as well.
“We knew that how we approached international policy, trying to stand on our own without thinking about how we could mobilize the international community as a force multiplier, that that was not going to work given the incredible number of challenges that we faced,” Obama said. “And most of all, I guess we understood that unless we changed our politics, unless we changed how we did business, that the same problems that we had been talking about decade after decade would perpetuate themselves; that we had to undergo a transformation in how we thought about citizenship and how we thought about each other, and that we had to get beyond some of the old divisions that were holding us back as a people. And so what our campaign tried to do was to resuscitate that notion that there’s something fundamental that binds us together, despite all our differences.”
Post-partisanship sounds good, but Obama’s calls for a new politics have sometimes been greeted by boos – especially from some in his own party who argue that was willing to sacrifice their principles for compromise and a political victory, as in the case of healthcare reform. It was the White House that pushed for almost any kind of bill even if it fell short of what Obama had hoped for in the campaign.
The next big test of Obama’s politics will come soon as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over budget cuts this week as the parties try to avoid a government shutdown, the opening round of months of economic infighting.