CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The festive sidewalks surrounding the convention’s security perimeter on Labor Day offered a visual crash course in the constituency groups that make up the 2012 Democratic Party. The most common accessory on a steamy afternoon was an old-fashioned hand fan from NARAL emblazoned with the slogan “Pro-Choice Voter—Politicians Make Crappy Doctors.” Union supporters and delegates wore SEIU T-shirts and carried IBEW tote bags. And in a tepid echo of one of the great slogans of the 1960s, dozens of Democrats wore paste-on decals that declared, “Make Out Not War.”
Obviously, my midday amble up South Tryon Street and down South College Street was not a statistically valid sample. Still, I was struck by the comparative lack of visible manifestations of Obama allegiance. Sure, there were T-shirts with slogans like “Obama 2012—Let’s Do It Again,” and a few older voters wore oversized buttons that proclaimed, “I [Heart] Obamacare.” A well-dressed man in his forties, whose badge identified him as a major campaign donor, wore a simple blue baseball cap unadorned except for the number “44”—Obama’s position in the line of presidential succession. But the overall impression was that these days Democrats seem more passionate about their pet cause than about their candidate.
There was a faint air of tropical depression hanging over the Republican convention in Tampa. "Mitt Romney" and "ecstatic" are not words that fit naturally in the same sentence. But the Republicans are willing to accept Romney because he has one undeniable political asset for conservatives: He is not now, nor has he ever been, Barack Obama.
Over the next three days in Charlotte, Obama may be able to re-create some of the intensity and inspiration of 2008. For a party that has set the modern standard for angry conventions (the tear-gassed streets of Chicago in 1968, the Jimmy Carter-Ted Kennedy acrimony of 1980), Democrats this year may be subdued, but they are definitely not sullen. It’s just that, on the cusp of Obama’s renomination, it feels like something is lacking.
Incumbent presidents running for re-election generally have one or two overarching achievements that can be the centerpiece of a political celebration. It is akin to the adage about hunting for a starter home—never move into a place that does not boast at least one great feature.
What is the signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency? Passage of health care reform seems the obvious answer, but most of its major provisions will not take effect until 2014. By 2016, Obamacare may be as politically unassailable as LBJ-care (aka Medicare). But right now, the legislation is an unpopular abstraction. Virtually every national poll on the topic in 2012 shows a plurality of voters opposes the legislation.
Yes, Obama deserves credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. But the well-deserved death of a mass murderer—a decade after the horrors of Sept. 11—is not the stuff for political banners in a convention hall. And despite the dubious certainties of Republican oratory, neutral arbiters like the Congressional Budget Office have consistently demonstrated that the unemployment rate today would be higher without the job creation sparked by Obama’s economic stimulus. Still, amid the balloons and the confetti following Obama’s acceptance speech on Thursday night, it is hard to imagine that giant TV screens will be flashing the triumphant Democratic message, “It Could Have Been Worse.”
The previous four presidents running for a second term had a simpler job of pointing with pride as they accepted renomination. Ronald Reagan came into the 1984 convention in Dallas having cut taxes, survived an assassination attempt, broken the air traffic controllers strike and was presiding over an economic recovery that was more robust than almost all economic forecasts. Reality was not as gauzy as the “Morning in America” campaign commercials, but it was close enough in the minds of the voters for Reagan to carry 49 states in November.
George H.W. Bush’s tax-raising apostasy may have cost him the White House in his 1992 re-election campaign, but no modern president can come close to matching his foreign policy achievements. Not only did Bush adroitly manage the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he also assembled a genuine international coalition to win the first Gulf War with a minimum of American casualties.
After a rocky start to his presidency (see: failure of health care reform and the rise of Newt Gingrich), Bill Clinton had rebounded by the time of the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago. The president had bested Gingrich in the faceoff over the governmental shutdown, had signed a welfare reform bill that neutralized a long-standing Republican issue and was presiding over an economy growing at a robust 2.6 percent.
The second war in Iraq was coming unraveled and the “Mission Accomplished” banner was a point of mockery by the time of the 2004 Republican convention in New York, just a few miles north of ground zero. But George W. Bush had his tax cuts and his forceful response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And that in November was just enough for re-election.
Long ago, as a junior speechwriter for Jimmy Carter in 1979, I struggled with concocting an early political speech for the president to boast about his accomplishments. There was a major achievement in foreign policy—the laboriously negotiated Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that still holds 34 years later. But after saluting “two courageous leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin,” things with the speech got a little tricky. There were individual accomplishments (yes, including a largely successful economic stimulus program), but no overall theme. And, of course, my struggles as a wordsmith turned out to be an early warning sign of Carter’s re-election problems.
The parallels between Obama’s fate and Carter’s are easily exaggerated. Obama has never seemed as lost as Carter was in the summer of 1979 when he gave what is misremembered as the “malaise speech” (the word was never mentioned in the Oval Office address) and purged his Cabinet. And the only similarities between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan are that they have six-letter last names beginning with “R.”
On Thursday night, Obama will try to define his presidency in a way that eluded Carter. What Obama needs is not a slogan like the justly forgotten “An America Built to Last” that accompanied the president’s 2012 State of the Union address, but rather a vision that can frame the past with pride and point to the future with hope. Eight years after he electrified the nation with his 2004 keynote address, in two days Obama will deliver the most important convention speech of his unlikely political career.