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Obama’s Change Anthem Pivots to Call for Patience on Economy

U.S. President Barack Obama
Barack Obama, U.S. president. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

Four years ago this month, candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in Iowa that defined the message of his presidential campaign with a single word -- change -- repeated six times.

“That’s why I am running for the presidency of the United States of America -- to offer change that we can believe in,” he said at the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner, bringing the almost 10,000 cheering Democrats to their feet.

Last month, President Barack Obama toured Virginia and North Carolina by bus and never uttered that word in more than two hours of talks to voters. Instead, he counseled patience.

“These are problems that built up over a decade or more; they won’t be solved overnight,” he said on Oct. 18 in Emporia, Virginia.

The difference reflects the challenge Obama faces as he runs for re-election with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and eroding confidence in government. An Oct. 26 New York Times/CBS News poll found Americans’ distrust of government at a record high -- 89 percent. Americans’ approval of Congress reached a new low -- 9 percent, the poll found.

Candidate Obama had offered a vision of a president who could persuade lawmakers to put aside partisanship and deliver solutions to the country’s biggest problems. It didn’t turn out that way.

While he accomplished many of the goals he set out that night in Iowa, including ending the war in Iraq and overhauling the health-care system, he did so in many cases along partisan lines. The landmark Affordable Care Act passed without Republican support in Congress.

Collision in Congress

Once in office Obama immediately collided with congressional Republicans, whose opposition was exemplified in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when he said his most important goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.”

The Obama of 2007 might have been making the case against the Obama of 2011 when he talked of then-President George W. Bush.

“We were promised a uniter, and we got a president who could not even lead the half of the country that voted for him,” Obama said in the 20-minute address he memorized and delivered without a teleprompter at the Nov. 10, 2007, Democratic Party dinner in Des Moines.

What moved supporters of candidate Obama -- and what contributed to his primary victory over Hillary Clinton -- was his promise to seek consensus and compromise. As president, Obama found change much harder to deliver, and his attempts to find common ground are criticized by foes and some supporters alike as demonstrating weakness or a lack of conviction.

Trust Deficit

To achieve sweeping change, a president needs an energized base of support from people who remain active and who trust government, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“That’s what was promised in this election campaign, that’s what everybody thought he might be able to do,” she said. “I don’t know whether that’s a problem of leadership or just a problem of the modern day.”

His advisers say it’s the latter.

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, said the “profound” damage caused by the deepest recession since the Great Depression made it harder to deal with the structural changes in the economy.

He also blamed Republicans for resisting compromise at almost every level.

“There are people on the other side of the aisle who decided from the beginning that we’re not going to participate in the new politics,” Axelrod said.

‘Blame and Divide’

Republicans have a different take.

“He’s gone from being the president of hope and change to being the president of blame and divide,” said former Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who was Obama’s first choice for secretary of Commerce.

Gregg, who has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, called the president’s outreach to Republicans “superficial.”

“What has been substantive is the class warfare and expansion of government into markets and the attempt to have a very dominant government along the European social welfare state model,” Gregg said.

U.S. Place

As he did in 2007 and 2008, the president is asking voters again to believe in the positive role for government, yet with a more somber appraisal of America’s place in the global economy. As he’s campaigned for his $447 billion package of tax cuts and spending to stimulate job creation, Obama warned of the competitive threats from China, Germany and South Korea.

“People used to travel from all around the world to look at what we built: the Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Central Station, Interstate Highway System,” Obama, 50, said in Emporia. “Now people aren’t coming to see what we built because they’re building it over there.”

His advisers say change will still be at the core of Obama’s re-election message.

“Change is ending the war and change is ending ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ and change is passing health-care reform after 100 years,” said White House senior adviser David Plouffe. “We’re going to embrace the change message because this isn’t just a random series of accomplishments.”

One year from the election, while Obama struggles with low approval ratings nationally, he bests potential Republican opponents in key battleground states. Surveys in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin show him beating Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Texas Governor Rick Perry in head-to-head matchups.

Repeating Themes

Obama is promoting themes similar to those he used four years ago even as he tempers expectations.

“It is going to take time to rebuild an America where we can restore security for the middle class and opportunity for folks trying to get in the middle class,” he said last month.

And he has tried to maintain a post-partisan tone, even if conciliatory words are sometimes followed by fighting ones.

“I’m not the Democratic president, I’m not the Republican president -- I’m the president,” Obama said to applause last month in Emporia. “This is not the Republican jobs act, this is not called the Democratic jobs act -- this is the American Jobs Act.”

Then he added: “One poll found that 63 percent of Americans support the ideas in this jobs bill. And yet 100 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against it. Does that make any sense?” Obama asked at Greensville County High School.

Policy Victories

He has succeeded on a number of policy promises even if credit from voters hasn’t followed.

U.S. troops will be fully out of Iraq by the end of this year. He signed a historic nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Russia. He authorized the operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after pledging to “finish the fight against” the terrorist organization. He revamped health care after a little more than a year in office, beating his pledge to pass the legislation “by the end of my first term.”

In addition, the government bailouts of General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC “paid off” in saving the automotive industry and creating jobs, Obama told autoworkers in Michigan last month as he visited a GM plant in Lake Orion where more than 1,500 jobs were saved when the company canceled plans to close the facility. And the government said Oct. 27 that U.S. gross domestic product -- the value of all goods and services produced -- rose at a 2.5 percent annual rate for the third quarter, with household purchases rising at a greater-than-expected 2.4 percent pace.

On other promises made that night back in 2007, he has come up short. Obama didn’t close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A push for comprehensive climate-change legislation ended after Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. “We don’t have an energy policy in this country, we’re still dependent on foreign oil,” Obama said last month in Virginia.

As the economy struggles, the promises Obama kept will be central to his message for voters over the next year. With his advisers conceding the hardest challenge is convincing the American people that the economy could have been worse if not for the president’s policies, Obama is framing the election as a choice between his vision and that of Republicans.

And that “change” word may not be gone from his vocabulary forever.

Speaking in Las Vegas last week, Obama summoned it again, though not as he did in Iowa: “We never said change would happen overnight.”

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