In 2004, a much-younger Barack Obama stepped onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention and gave a speech that literally changed the course of American history.
"There are those who are preparing to divide us," he said, "the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."
That was the Obama who thrilled an unsuspecting nation. He didn’t have a plan to heal the country. He had an argument that it wasn’t really sick. The impression of division, he said, was the work of "spin masters." It was "the pundits" who liked "to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states."
But the American people — they weren’t really divided. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states," he said to rapturous applause.
Then there was the Obama of 2008. In four short years, he had shot from state senator to presidential nominee. He had served in Washington. He knew the divisions were real. He had stopped blaming the pundits and spin masters. Now he sought to convince both sides that the gaps, though real, could be bridged with new thinking, with a spirit of compromise. He warned that "Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past." He said that what is "lost is our sense of common purpose, and that's what we have to restore."
The Obama of 2016 wrapped his speech in the language of hope. "While this nation has been tested by war and recession and all manner of challenge," he said, "I stand before you again tonight, after almost two terms as your president, to tell you I am even more optimistic about the future of America."
But it was not a hopeful speech. Obama no longer suggests our divisions are illusory; he no longer proposes new thinking as a salve for old battles. Tonight, the choice wasn’t merely between red and blue, but between democracy and authoritarianism, between a public servant and a would-be autocrat.
"Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order," Obama said. "We don’t look to be ruled."
The Obama of 2004 did not think it necessary to say Americans don’t look to be ruled. The Obama of 2008 was happy to say, "I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain." The Obama of 2016 was reduced to warning of "homegrown demagogues" and a "self-declared savior."
Obama has achieved much. He is, undoubtedly, one of the most consequential presidents in American history. But he leaves behind a country more divided than the one he found. He rose in American politics by saying there were no red states and blue states only to prove that, yes, there really were red states and blue states. In 2012, he predicted the Republican Party’s "fever may break" if he won reelection, but all it did was spike.
"This year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me," Obama said tonight, "to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us." Implicit in that cry was that 12 years after Obama gave his inspiring speech in Boston, our politics courses with more cynicism and more fear than ever. Donald Trump is campaigning for president — as of this moment, he is even leading in the polls — by summoning the worst in us.
Obama says he is more optimistic than ever about America’s future, and he may well be. But this was a speech that revealed a deep pessimism about America’s present, and correctly so.