But it's as if Obama spent the 1990s in some kind of Democratic Brigadoon and didn't keep up with his party, let alone the nation. Obama, the man of the future, in fact stands athwart that history, yelling "Stop!"
This is the best way to understand his recent comments at a San Francisco fundraiser as he explained his challenge of connecting with rural and small-town voters.
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania," he said, "and ... the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. ... It's not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
When his comments sparked a controversy, he dismissed it as a "little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true."
But everybody doesn't know anything of the sort. Not in this decade anyway. Obama's merely recycling the liberal cliches of the '80s, namely that Pennsylvania's "bitter" voters have been duped by "wedge issues" like guns, religion and racial resentment. New Democrats recognized that wedge issues are legitimate concerns. Old Democrats remain in denial.
"My rival in this race," he said in 2007, "is not other candidates, it's cynicism." And, of course, Obama is against "division." This treacle was once dismissed as naive idealism, a.k.a. "the politics of hope." But the code has been broken. His real opponent is the "division" that made Reagan, the Bushes and the Clintons possible and brought politics to the center, where the country was all along.
Slate columnist Mickey Kaus has been waiting for Obama to "pivot" to the center as Clinton did in 1992. But it may be that America's most reliably liberal senator doesn't think he has to. He isn't a unifier. He's a counter-revolutionary. And waiting for him to pivot is like waiting for Godot.