In 2008, Barack Obama owned the word “hope.”
In 2012, with Obama on the brink of accepting the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night and running for re-election, that ownership is in question.
Obama used to use the “H” word constantly. It was part of the title of his best-selling 2006 book – “The Audacity of Hope.” That book expanded on his electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the one that made people believe Obama could be a presidential candidate.
Said Obama in that 2004 speech: “In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope? It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores, the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta, the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds, the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
That skinny kid with a funny name was Obama, of course, and we know a lot more about him now. Obama has been president for close to four years. And the giddiness that many felt on the day of his election in 2008 has been replaced by the reality of the problems that still plague America.
So in his DNC speech Thursday night – moved from Bank of America Stadium indoors to Time Warner Cable Arena because of the threat of rain – Obama will need to again inject hope into the Democratic faithful.
For a politician who wants to change things, hope is a powerful four-letter word. Bill Clinton knew that. He had the good fortune to be from Hope, Ark., and he memorably ended his 1992 nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention by saying, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
DNC delegates in Charlotte want Obama to link himself strongly with “hope” once more, even though he’s now running as an incumbent instead of an outsider.
“This speech is extremely, extremely important,” said Emanuel Jones, a state senator from Georgia who is also a convention delegate. “Four year ago, even eight years ago, our president really seized upon the mood of the country. We were hemorrhaging jobs. We were mired down in war. We needed hope. I needed hope. He came along at the right time and the right moment. And now we need it again.”
Said Bob Livsey, a DNC delegate from California: “I think President Obama still owns the word ‘hope.’ We’re out of Iraq. We’re winding down in Afghanistan. I’m very happy myself with Obama Care. There’s a lot to be hopeful about.”
But now Republicans are using the word “hope” against Obama.
Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week: “Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight, I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”
That was a good line.
It is far harder for an incumbent to harness hope. There is no “first-date” feel with the voters anymore. Once you have served as president, you have inevitably disappointed a number of people who wished you had done something different.
With Obama, there is also context to consider, said Elizabeth Redenbaugh, a lawyer from Wilmington and a North Carolina delegate: “When he took office, we were standing at a precipice, about to fall into an economic pit. He was able to keep us from that.”
Still, even the most positive delegates understand that Obama hasn’t been perfect. “Hope hasn’t been fully realized yet,” Redenbaugh said. “But President Obama needs four more years.”
We are less than nine weeks from the election. And by now, two things are clear:
First, the race between Romney and Obama will be extremely close.
Second, if Obama hopes to win, he better light it up Thursday night.