The New York Times Editorial
In 2008, Barack Obama arrived at his convention in Denver trying to remake a drifting Democratic Party in his own image, and to convince dubious voters that he could govern the country. Mr. Obama came to his convention in Charlotte still struggling to lead and revive that same party and once again to convince voters that he can govern a country more bitterly divided than it was in 2008.
He brought to his convention an actual record at governing — not just the Republican posture of saying “No” to everything. He has far better ideas about how to create jobs, make Americans’ tax burdens more equitable and improve ordinary Americans’ economic prospects than the tired, failed trickle-down fantasies served up by Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.
He ended the war in Iraq, tried to rescue the Afghan war that President George W. Bush bungled, stepped up the offensive on terrorists far beyond Mr. Bush’s vision and rallied the world to support the insurrection in Libya and ratchet up pressure on Iran. He blunted the extreme message of the Tea Party after the Democrats’ losses in 2010 by offering an alternative vision of government’s power, and obligation, to help the neediest, provide everyone with the basic structures of society and the economy, and end unconscionable discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. He has protected women’s constitutional rights and liberties, despite his own misgivings about abortion.
And yet, Mr. Obama is still struggling to make voters see beyond the sluggish recovery and his political pratfalls. His big night at the convention this year is every bit as fraught with uncertainty and risk as was his 2008 convention address.
Mr. Obama allowed himself to believe in his own legend, cheered on by the hundreds of thousands of adoring supporters who thronged his inauguration, by the sheer magnificence of the swearing-in of an African-American president. It was as though he concluded that his election by itself changed the world and had fulfilled his promise of a post-partisan era.
The president and his tight inner circle were oblivious to the Republicans’ explicit warning that he would not get the slightest cooperation from a party and a Congressional caucus driven by an implacable hatred of Mr. Obama that is mostly ideological but also fueled by his race. It took nearly three years for the Obama team to recognize that central fact.
Mr. Obama won passage of an economic recovery bill that not only warded off depression, but actually created jobs, and of a health care reform law that is essential to the long-term economic health of the country. But he ceded the nitty-gritty of lawmaking to Congress, where leaders of his own party did not fully step up to the moment and Republicans stood in stonewall opposition.
And he ceded the national debate on central issues to those same Republicans, mired in his belief that the force of his intellect could melt their obstructionism and that he could deliver the powerful speech to save the day. It happened, time again, on health care, on the stimulus, on the Bush tax cuts, on the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama allowed his opponents to define the argument and so define him.
He fought for economic stimulus, and for the re-regulation of an out-of-control financial industry that almost destroyed the economy. But he settled for less than he should have in both areas, and he appointed an economic team that led him to ignore the plight of ordinary homeowners. They sank further into a swamp of debt until he was seen as a president who promised to fight for the middle class and never did.
Bill Clinton showed Mr. Obama how to do it. On Wednesday night, Mr. Clinton fought back against the Republicans on Medicaid and Medicare, two areas where the Obama campaign has so far failed to get real traction. He made the argument for health care reform, financial re-regulation and fair taxation, all while firing up a crowd eager to roar.
That is Mr. Obama’s chance in Charlotte tonight, and his challenge. He has done it before.