A Trip Down Memory Lane

As we watch Republicans give a collective "Meh" to their contenders for president, I thought it might be a good time for a trip down memory lane. Four years ago, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus and delivered what may be his best speech ever. Take a quick gander and remember those heady days:

Does it still give you shivers? I always felt that the most compelling thing about Obama's campaign rhetoric was how he brought the listener into his own epic story. Let me revisit what I wrote at the time:

But if you were born in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, history probably isn't something you participated in, it's something you watched on television. You watched America's all-volunteer military invade a succession of small countries (Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq...) but never worried about you or your brother going to fight, unless it were by choice. The most significant event of the second half of the 20th century -- the breakup of the Soviet Empire -- happened on television, too. When a world-changing event took place on American soil, most of us watched it on the tube. And what did the people who were actually in lower Manhattan on September 11 say? Over and over, they told journalists, "It was like something out of a movie." They could only relate it to their experience as spectators.

Again and again, Obama tells people that they are more than just spectators. When Obama said, after the Iowa caucus, "On this January night -- at this defining moment in history -- you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do," the pronouns were critical. Unlike George W. Bush, who tends to put himself at the center of the heroic stories he tells, Obama is much more likely to talk about "you" and "we." That speech included a repetition of the phrase "This was the moment," culminating with, "Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment -- this was the place -- where America remembered what it means to hope." It's a kind of instant nostalgia, looking forward to looking back, that harks back to Shakespeare's Henry V rousing his troops at Agincourt ("This story shall the good man teach his son. ... And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here").

The message is that you are living in historic times, and history depends on you. This is particularly compelling for progressives who have spent years thirsting for a political movement that makes them feel strong. So often they have been derided for being wimpy and passive, standing on the sidelines debating while two-fisted conservatives conquer the world -- or as an unnamed Bush aide famously told Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." But Obama's rhetoric tells progressives that they can be more than spectators, bending the nation's course to their will. It's an enticing idea for people who have gotten used to being bullied by their opponents and let down by impotent leadership.

In a campaign, that message makes sense. The most important event of the moment involves ordinary people every day, and if you want to you can play a part. The idea that you will play a part, maybe even an important part, in the messy business of governing is much harder to believe.

The best political rhetoric tells the listeners not just something about who the speaker is, but who the listeners themselves are. Listening to the Republican candidates, what does a listener learn about who she is? Well, it depends. She learns that she is someone who hates Barack Obama, certainly ,and someone who wants government to get off her back. That's something, I guess, but it doesn't exactly get the heart pumping. And if Mitt Romney does end up being the nominee, it would be hard to see him getting anyone's heart pumping. That doesn't mean he can't win -- there have been uninspiring candidates who won the presidency before. But at this point anyway, it's hard to see Republicans looking back with the soft glow of nostalgia at the 2012 campaign.