First Lady Michelle Obama's address to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte tonight was a throwback, a reprise of the speech her husband gave in at the DNC in 2004, the speech that created his new identity as a unique, unifying political leader--a persona that he himself has shed in four years as President.
Michelle's core message: Barack is still that man--even though he has tried to divide Americans among allies and "enemies," even though Obama fan David Brooks writes today that Obama's unifying purpose "did not survive contact with reality," even though his friends at the Huffington Post wonder "Who Killed the Hope?":
...I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are--it reveals who you are...
I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as "us" and them"--he doesn't care whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above...he knows that we all love our country...and he's always ready to listen to good ideas...he's always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.
Those lines evoke Barack Obama's words eight years ago. But is there anyone who still believes that?
In fact, the more we learn about his past, the more it seems that Obama's "transcendent" period--lasting roughly from 2001 through 2008--was an interregnum, bracketed by periods defined by radicalism and division, where unity was possible only if the political opposition agreed to set aside its petty interests in the service of his wonderful design.
Possibly the only person who agrees with Michelle Obama is political strategist David Axelrod, who helped shape his client's image on the national stage but has lately pushed back against notions that Obama's bare-knuckled, negative campaign of 2012 is tactically different from the supposedly uplifting campaign of 2008.
Tonight, the First Lady tried to convince Americans that her husband is the same in another way as well--that despite his newfound wealth and power, he still remembers a time of material struggle that defined his younger years, and still relates to the economic reality that ordinary Americans face every day.
In much the way that only Ann Romney could "humanize" the calculating Mitt Romney, with her unique window on his personal life, only Michelle Obama can testify to the material austerity of her husband, because in his public habits--the "price of arugula," the lavish Hollywood parties, the endless rounds of golf--he is certainly far from frugal.
How credible Mrs. Obama is as a witness--she of the Spanish vacation, the jaunt to Maine instead of the Gulf coast during the oil spill, the Aspen skiing trip--will be up to the voters to decide.
But the First Lady's address failed for a more fundamental reason: if Barack Obama is indeed the same man that he was when he came to office four years ago, then there is something seriously wrong.
If he has been untouched by the burdens of being commander-in-chief, if his infinite ambitions have not been tempered by his political losses, if his excessive self-regard has not been humbled by the unique challenges of his office, if he would not do anything differently in his second term than "communicate" more effectively, then for all intents and purposes, President Obama really has been an empty chair in the Oval Office.