WASHINGTON — People remember the hope and the history. For him or against him, they picture candidate Barack Obama as the one who stood on stage in a football stadium in Denver and accepted the Democratic presidential nomination by declaring, “It’s time for us to change America.”
Forgotten, it seems, is what Obama said when he actually won.
“The road ahead will be long,” he said solemnly that November night in Chicago, displaying none of the euphoria of his supporters.
“Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
That message amounted to a political framework for Obama’s entire presidency, and for the shot he has at continuing it.
With polls showing a close contest, Obama needs voters to recall how life was back at the start, to judge what he has done as productive but unfinished, to put everything in the perspective of climbing out of the worst economic hole of their lifetimes. He always said it might take more than four years, after all.
Now he is up against both historical odds, given the nation’s high unemployment, and a formidable Republican challenger in Mitt Romney.
Obama’s own four-year road has been steep, from Denver in 2008 to Charlotte, where he will accept his party’s renomination Thursday night. His message of hope is still tucked in there, but the pitch is a lot more hang-in-there-with-me.
The country is divided over him. The politics he promised to change remain nasty. Yet whatever one thinks of him, his presidency has been consequential.
Grappling with a monster recession at the start, Obama moved fast to get passage of a giant stimulus package with the support of his party. When the public mood later shifted to disgust over debt, he and his Democratic allies in Congress took a midterm shellacking, forcing him to adjust to the frustrating life of divided government.
His signature domestic effort, an overhaul of health coverage in America, gobbled up time and capital. He barely got it through the legislative body and watched anxiously as it sped toward review at the Supreme Court. It survived by one vote — from Chief Justice John Roberts, whose confirmation then-Sen. Obama refused to support.
Obama ended the unpopular Iraq war, although it was on the path to an end. And he is promising to close the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Even his critics applauded at least one defining moment. Obama ordered the risky raid to send special operations forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden, the most hunted terrorist in the world. The al-Qaida leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was shot dead.
Obama’s campaign pitch this year could be ripped from the speech he gave on that Denver convention stage four years ago — essentially that government can help the middle class and support private industry and protect the hurting. He says Republicans favor an economic trickle-down approach that leaves people on their own.
Voters have two choices to make. The first is whether to give Obama credit for economic progress. The other is whether they think he or Romney will lead the nation better going forward.