President Barack Obama hopes he still can run as an agent of change.
The catchwords of the election campaign which made the junior senator from Illinois the first African-American president in a nation that still was struggling over civil rights as he was growing up have been tested by three of the toughest years in modern times.
“People ask me sometimes, `Well, how does this campaign compare to 2008?” Obama said at a re-election campaign fundraiser yesterday in San Francisco, part of a two-day Western tour. “ I say, `If somebody asks you, you tell them it’s still about hope and change. And if you want to know what change is, change is the first bill that I signed into law that said — the Lilly Ledbetter law that says an equal day’s work deserves an equal day’s pay, and that our daughters should be treated the same way as our sons.”’
That, notably, was first-day legislation.
What transpired in the three-plus years that followed Obama’s inauguration has tested the ability of a president to confront the worst recession since the 1930s and his ability to compel a divided Congress to act as needed. Out of the gate, Obama won an economic stimulus which even the Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, has called a “finger in the dike” against a tide that could have brought even more serious job losses. He engineered a bailout for General Motors that is paying dividends in jobs and profits today.
Yet, more fundamentally, voters are likely to ask what really has changed since Obama’s election — what about the nation’s capital, in particular, has changed. There’s no shortage of evidence that the inability of Congress to agree on anything significant since the hard-fought health-care legislation which Obama won — and which now rests at the Supreme Court — or the financial regulations which Republicans vow to repeal is proof positive that little has changed in Washington.
“Change is making sure that not only are we attracting manufacturing back to our shores, but we’re investing in advanced manufacturing — in areas like advanced battery technology, or solar energy, or wind power — that will not only usher in tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of new jobs all across America but are also going to make sure that we are passing on to our kids and our grandkids the kind of planet that they deserve,” Obama said yesterday, within the media market of Silicon Valley.
“Change is us saying we’re going to stop funneling tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to banks for running the student loan program,” the president said. “Let’s just give that money directly to students, so that millions more young people are getting Pell grants and reducing the burden of debt that they have when they go to college, because we want to make sure that America continues to have the best-educated workforce in the world. That’s what change is. That’s what we’ve done.”
“Change is making sure that, yes, we passed a health care bill so that 30 million Americans won’t be worried about going bankrupt in case they get sick,” he said, “and now we’ve got 2.5 million young people who are on their parents’ insurance because of this law and millions of seniors who are seeing lower costs for their prescription drugs because of this law. And everybody is able to get preventive care, and women are no longer being charged more than men for it. And they can’t drop you from coverage just when you need it most. That’s what change is.”
Something else has changed since 2008, Obama suggested in San Francisco: The tenor of the other party.
“When I ran in 2008, ” Obama said, “I was running against a guy who I had a lot of disagreements with, but he believed in climate change, he believed in campaign finance reform, he believed in immigration reform. ”’
That was Senator John McCain of Arizona, who co-sponsored with the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, who co-sponsored with former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin legislation that capped the “soft money” that big donors could give to the political parties and who was the last major party’s candidate for president to accept public financing for his election campaign, giving way to an era in which unlimited donations by often-secret donors are bankrolling the campaigns of committees whose spending threatens to swamp candidates of either party in November.
“The character of the party and the Republicans in Congress had fundamentally shifted,” Obama said yesterday.
There’s little question that the president’s rival party, offering Republican Mitt Romney as the alternative this year, has changed. Tea Party-backed candidates are responsible for the retirement of longtime lawmakers such as Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a Republican long viewed as someone with a vision that transcended the party divide. Lugar and others have been run out by candidates who vow no compromise with their ideals.
The question, for Obama, is whether he can continue to campaign for re-election on the change he promised in 2008, as the most significant change in Washington since then has fostered more political divisiveness than any hope of something new.