Obama's calls for a new civility four years ago are apparently inoperative. The vow to "punish our enemies" and the intimidation of Romney campaign donors are a long way from the soaring speech at Berlin's Victory Column and "Yes, we can." Obama once called for a focus on issues rather than personal invective. But now we mysteriously hear again of Romney's dog, his great-great-grandfather's wives, and a roughhousing incident some 50 years ago in prep school.
The "hope and change" slogan for a new unity gave way to a new "us versus them" divide. "Us" now means all sorts of targeted appeals to identity groups like African-Americans for Obama, Latinos for Obama, gays for Obamas, greens for Obama, or students for Obama. "Them," in contrast, means almost everyone else who cannot claim hyphenation or be counted on as a single-cause constituency. In 2008, the Obama strategy was supposedly to unite disparate groups with a common vision; in 2012, it is to rally special interests through common enemies.
Remember the Obama who promised an end to the revolving door of lobbyists and special-interest money? Then came the likes of Peter Orszag, who went from overseeing the Obama budget to being a Citigroup grandee, and financial pirate Jon Corzine, who cannot account for more than $1.5 billion of investors' money but can bundle cash for Obama's re-election. If you told fervent supporters in 2008 that by early 2012 Obama would set a record for the most meet-and-greet fundraisers in presidential history, they would have thought it blasphemy.
Obama is said to go over every name on his Predator drone targeted-assassination list -- a kill tally that is now seven times larger in less than four years than what George W. Bush piled up in eight. Guantanamo is just as open now as it was in 2008. If Obama supporter and former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh was once accusing President Bush of being "torturer in chief," he is now an Obama insider arguing that bombing Libya is not really war and that taking out an American citizen and terrorist suspect in Yemen is perfectly legal. Previously bad renditions, preventative detentions and military tribunals are now all good.
Some disgruntled conservatives jumped ship in 2008 for the supposedly tightfisted Obama when he called for halving the deficit in four years and derided George Bush as "unpatriotic" for adding $4 trillion to the national debt. Yet Obama already has exceeded all the Bush borrowing in less than four years.
What accounts for the radical change in mood from four years ago?
The blue-state model of large government, increased entitlements and high taxes may be good rhetoric, but it is unsound reality. Redistribution does not serve static, aging populations in a competitive global world -- as we are seeing from California to southern Europe. "Hope and change" was a slogan in 2008; it has since been supplanted by the reality of 40 straight months of 8-percent-plus unemployment and record deficits -- despite $5 billion in borrowed priming, near-zero interest rates, and vast increases in entitlement spending.
To be re-elected, a now-polarizing Obama believes that he must stoke the fears of some of us rather than appeal to all of our hopes by defending a successful record, while smearing with the old politics rather than inspiring with the new. That cynical calculation and constant hedging and flip-flopping may be normal for politicians, but eventually it proves disastrous for the ones who posed as messianic prophets.