In Memoriam: The Old Obama, Who Wanted to Bring People Together

Goodbye 2004. Hello 2012.

May 22, 2012, 5:44 PM

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2012 -- The 2004 version of Barack Obama, who captured the nation with a dazzling speech about unity and went on to win the presidency on a message of hope, died on Monday. He was 8 years old.

The cause of death appeared to be a bitter realization that he needed to win reelection in an increasingly partisan political environment, a cancer that he had been battling for months if not years.

Obama's illness got the best of him late Monday, as he announced that his campaign for four more years in the White House would be based not on optimism, but rather the shady corporate record of his opponent, Mitt Romney, who ran a private-equity firm that few Americans knew about before this year.

Obama's announcement was a stark contrast to the speech that catapulted him into his party's sights eight years ago, when he electrified Democrats at their quadrennial convention.

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America," Obama declared to cheers at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "There is the United States of America.

"We are one people," Obama roared, perhaps envisioning his political future as the crowd rose to its feet. "All of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

And strangely enough, it was in that very speech that Obama predicted his own demise. Just before his climactic applause line, the future president issued a stark warning.

"Even as we speak," he said, "there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes."

On May 21, 2012, more than three years after he was sworn into office, Obama confessed at a press conference in his hometown, Chicago, that he had become one of those peddlers.

That day, his campaign had published a video attacking Romney for his role at his firm, Bain Capital, which bought an Indiana office supplies company and profited off of it before it went bankrupt. The ad said nothing about Obama, and even a handful of Democrats began criticizing the ad for dishonestly targeting the arena of private equity.

While it wasn't Obama first negative ad, he forcefully stood his ground and promised that the debate over the next few months will focus on Romney's background.

"This is not a distraction," he said. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."

Obama's admission was in some ways the completion of a metamorphosis that began even during the 2008 campaign, as it became likely that he would be elected. After promising to throw out so-called politics as usual, Obama broke his first promise by rejecting public funding for his campaign because he could raise millions more on his own. He also ran negative ads against his opponent, John McCain, in that race, too.

Later in his presidency, Obama would crusade against a Supreme Court decision that allowed so-called super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on election ads. He said the decision would corrupt American politics, but after his rivals took advantage of the system, he abandoned his ideological view and embraced his own super PAC, even sending his cabinet secretaries to fundraisers for it.

"I know for a fact they feel like they had to do that. ... They did not feel that they could stand on principle," said a former administration official who asked not to be named. "He wanted to change politics and get people in Washington to get along better. But that did not happen."

At times in his presidency, it seemed that the old Obama was fighting back. He embraced ideas from Republicans on health care, for example, only to see them rejected across the aisle. Eventually, when his party tried to pass major legislation, Obama decided that rather than hold out for a long-shot deal with the GOP, he pushed through the health care bill and new rules for Wall Street.

It was impossible for Obama not to change at least a little while living inside the walls of the White House. The first part of his term was characterized by huge spending projects that Republicans opposed fervently -- the stimulus, the auto bailout, the health care overhaul -- and even when compromise seemed possible, partisanship prevailed.

At some point, his friends said, Obama realized that he couldn't hold Republicans' hands and govern with them. He started his own executive order campaign designed deliberately to run around Congress.

"The president is grizzled. ... He's hardened over the last four years," the former official said. "Each side perceives that they're going to be in more of a combat mode than they were in 2008. And that kind of feeds on itself."

Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush, remarked, "Obama's best and only chance is to make the election a choice and not a referendum."

Already supporters are eyeing Republicans as the culprit. Because of their steadfast opposition to his agenda, they say, Obama was forced to change not on his own volition. One of Obama's top enemies in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, famously said in an interview that his top priority was to defeat the president.

Those feelings of isolation solidified in recent months as the 2012 campaign kicked up a gear -- Romney campaigning every day against Obama, and a pro-Romney super PAC spending millions of dollars on negative ads, with more money certain to flow into the race throughout the summer and the fall. It's unclear whether the death was due to suicide or natural causes.

"What is the president supposed to do? Are we and the hopes of the American people -- are we supposed to unilaterally disarm in the face of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, people like that?" one major Democratic donor said, referring to high-profile GOP money men.

"The sad reality is, I think, there's no choice," the donor said. "I wish there was."

Some believers are in denial and insist that Obama of 2004 lives, perhaps muted or constrained by the newer version. They say he still serves as a symbol of hope to many followers, even if his campaign has adopted a decidedly negative approach.

"There will be plenty of people publicly lamenting the apparent disappearance of the old Obama and his transformation into yet another incumbent," said Bill Galston, who advised Bill Clinton and the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Walter Mondale. "But part of that is inherent in the logic of the situation. If you're an incumbent, you're in a fundamentally different position. You can't simply point forward."

Obama is survived by a president who will spend most of the next six months on the stump, railing against his Republican opponent as he tries to retain political power. A memorial service will be held at a fundraiser today in Colorado. In lieu of flowers, donations are being accepted at the Priorities USA Action super PAC.

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