The local politicos who awaited Barack Obama’s arrival to a northwest Philadelphia schoolyard on Sunday afternoon all seemed to have the same unanswered question: what was Joe Biden doing there? Why did Obama need his running mate to help win over a largely black crowd in a Democratic stronghold?
The two have never had a particularly compelling chemistry on stage: the vice-president seems to evoke alternating waves of impatience and bemusement from his boss. But the unusual joint appearance was the best shorthand to evoke 2008 nostalgia among the loyal Democrats whose participation could help rescue an otherwise dismal election day on 2 November.
The buddy act was just one of the old campaign trappings that have returned in the election’s closing weeks, although tweaked for new realities: the sunrise O logo is no longer paired with a message of “Change” but the Democrats’ new campaign slogan “Moving America Forward”.
“I need everyone to understand our victory in that campaign wasn’t the end of the road,” Obama told 18,000 supporters. “That was just the beginning of the road.”
Much of Obama’s charm as a presidential candidate came from his striking newness, including the idea that he was different not only from his Republican opponents but from all the Democrats who came before him. This year Obama has been forced into the role of parliamentary leader, carrying the flag for all Democrats and discrediting the opposition – an unusual fit for a man who has long acted as though he was too sophisticated for tired old categories and allegiances.
Where in 2008 Obama sold his own unique credentials to expand the possibilities of politics, now he is often marketing mediocrity. On Sunday, he was not asking Pennsylvanians to cast a vote for him, but for the two Democrats seeking state-wide office: governor candidate Dan Onorato, a solid but unmemorable county executive who has presided over Pittsburgh’s tentative renaissance, and Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral turned congressman with an off-kilter campaign style whom the White House had opposed in the Democratic primary.
Both happily sounded Obama credos that today echo poorly among a broader electorate. “You don’t just vote once for change,” Sestak said. “You keep fighting for change.”
If anything, those optimistic Obama homilies were too potent in 2008. His young administration promised nonchalantly that its stimulus bill would quickly perk up the economy, leaving many Americans today startled to see that hard times endure.
In the hopes of making voters sympathetic to his struggle, Obama is only now catching them up on all the bad news he downplayed earlier in his term. On Sunday he recounted two-year-old unemployment figures, itemising them month by month: 800,000 jobs lost the month he was sworn in. The new Obama is not so much an agent of hope but of retroactive despair. “I know you are impatient with the pace of change,” Obama said. “And so am I.”