The Obama era in American politics began almost exactly eight years ago in Boston, when a youthful Senate candidate’s soaring speech to the Democratic National Convention stole the show from the actual Democratic nominee.
It ended, to all intents and purposes, last Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., when a weary-seeming incumbent delivered perhaps the fourth-best major address at his own convention — a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate.
The end of an era does not necessarily mean the end of a presidency. Barack Obama is still beloved by his supporters and regarded sympathetically by many swing voters. His Republican rival is a flawed candidate running an overcautious campaign. The memories of the Bush presidency’s failures are still fresh enough to make even a stumbling Democratic administration seem as if it might be the lesser of two evils.
But a re-elected Obama will be a permanently diminished Obama, with no magic left in his public persona and no mandate save to stay the current economic course. He may win the necessary electoral votes in November, but come February he will already essentially be a lame duck.
This reality has been apparent for some time, but the proceedings in Charlotte were highly clarifying. Last week, Michelle Obama offered a moving apologia for her husband’s character and leadership. Then Bill Clinton smoothly defended Obama’s domestic policy, and then sliced and diced the Republican alternative. On Thursday, Joe Biden issued a stinging populist attack on Mitt Romney.
All of these speeches appeared to set the president up to do more than just defend his own record and define his opponent as extreme and out-of-touch. By taking the fight to Romney, it seemed, they made it possible for Obama himself to advance a more positive agenda. By looking backward, they made it possible for him to look ahead.
But the president’s actual speech did no such thing. The contrasts he drew with the Republicans were effective enough, but his positive agenda was mostly just a laundry list of easy targets — hiring more teachers, increasing natural gas production, modest short-term deficit reduction — rather than anything remotely transformative or new.
As the president promised, so is he likely to deliver. An Obama second term could feature some sort of early deal on taxes and spending, because the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will give him a temporarily strengthened hand to play. But a comprehensive, Simpson-Bowles-style deficit deal seems even less likely than before — let alone a deal on Medicare reform, where the two parties are now more polarized than ever. Likewise with liberal priorities like climate change legislation and immigration reform.
As for the unemployed, maybe time and Ben Bernanke can help them, but there were no proposals of significance in the president’s speech for how to speed up short-term economic growth. Nothing new about housing, or the payroll tax, or regulatory reform, or monetary policy — nothing save an appeal for patience.
As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein noted after the speech, a vote for the president’s meager agenda is effectively a vote for a kind of “return to normalcy” after the intense perturbations of the last four years.
Clinton’s high-profile convention role was appropriate, in a sense, because in the best-case scenario, an Obama second term would return us to the legislative landscape of the late 1990s — an era of small ball and incrementalism and modest forms of bipartisanship, in which politicians of both parties took credit for positive developments that they didn’t actually control.
But we are not in the late 1990s anymore. There is nothing remotely “normal” about the unemployment rate we’re enduring, or the long-term deficits we face, or the fact that the American birthrate has dropped below replacement level over the last five years.
So far, Mitt Romney has conspicuously failed to persuade voters that his party, which helped lead us into this mess, has learned enough and changed enough to lead us out of it.
But whatever happens in November, the president’s own words have given us fair warning: We face a continuing crisis, and the liberalism of Barack Obama is no longer equal to the task.
ROSS DOUTHAT is a columnist for The New York Times.