WASHINGTON — “We're not going back. … We're going forward,” said President Obama during his formal campaign kickoff in Ohio. This rallying cry was pedestrian, and appropriately so. Obama is no longer a leader on horseback. His campaign — on the evidence of its first day — will be a long, unimaginative, partisan march to the sea.
Gone are the vast ambitions of national progress and healing. In Ohio on Saturday, Obama made a methodical appeal to various voting blocks — college-educated women, gays, Hispanics. He waded into the culture war on abortion, something he rarely did four years ago. And he accused the GOP of trickle-down hostility to the middle class.
To every interest group, a sop. On every wedge issue, a swat. To every class enemy, a turn in the tumbrel.
The president may persuade voters with this message, but he apparently has given up trying to inspire them. And this is not a small thing, since the Obama brand once consisted mainly of inspiration.
The brand of the Obama re-election campaign, so far, is ruthlessness. It has accused Mitt Romney of being soft on Osama bin Laden. It has singled out some Romney donors by name for public attack. Romney, we are informed, enjoys shipping jobs abroad, which is “just what you'd expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.” Obama has accused Republican congressional opponents of social Darwinism and indifference to autistic children.
There is a political case for Obama's early, hardball tactics. It has Democrats excited. Liberals — who have occasionally complained that Obama is not confrontational enough — are no longer complaining.
But there are downsides as well. Obama is already one of the most consistently polarizing presidents of the last 60 years. His current campaign strategy, win or lose, will deepen our national divisions. It was unreasonable to believe that Obama could reverse the long-term political trend toward polarization. But it is still sad when a leader ceases to fight the current.
Obama's political identity is particularly vulnerable to inconsistency on this issue. More than any recent presidential candidate, his initial appeal was based on changing the political atmosphere. He would end the “partisan food fight.” There are no red or blue states, he said, just the United States.