Barack Obama was swept to the White House in 2008 by a wave of idealism and inspirational campaigning in which he encapsulated the mood of the nation with his slogans of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Yes we can’.
Then, his message was a fundamentally positive one. Americans wanted an end to the Bush era but that almost went without saying. Obama pointed to his own vision of the country; a post-partisan, post-racial America in which gridlock in Washington was ended and common-sense centrist solutions were adopted.
What a difference four years makes. Obama is campaigning ferociously for a second term – and he is a candidate who would have probably have been disdained by the Obama of 2008.
Four more years? President Obama, pictured left in March 2008, and right, at an event in Las Vegas earlier this week; the Commander-in-Chief is waging a relentlessly negative campaign for the White House
Drawing crowds: While many came to hear Obama speak Wednesday at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas, it's nowhere near the numbers he was reaching in 2008
While Obama is still drawing sizable crowds, they are nothing like the size of those who flocked to see him in 2008. In Las Vegas, Obama held a rally in a high school before more than 2,000 people but there was space for plenty more.
On the outskirts of Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday morning, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan attracted more than 3,000 people who patiently queued in lines across a field to be searched by the Secret Service.
Crowd size is not everything – as Obama himself could attest after losing in the 2008 New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton even though he had attracted unprecedented numbers to his events, eclipsing the former First Lady by two or three to one.
But the difference between the numbers Obama is attracting now compared to four years ago should be a cause of deep concern to his campaign.
More significantly, the mood of the crowds is different. There is a sullenness, even resentment, that was not present in 2008. Ask an Obama supporter about their man and as often as not you will get a few words about him and then a demeaning attack on Romney or Ryan.
Bright eyes: Then-senator Obama is pictured speaking during a town hall meeting in San Antonio, Texas in March of 2008
Popularity: The president's likability surged during his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin in 2008
And while he was careful to call him ‘Governor Romney’ and not stoop to the kind of attacks he has left to his campaign and its allies (such as accusing him of being a felon or linking him to the death of a woman from cancer), the contempt he has for his opponent was almost visceral.
Significantly, the mood of the crowds is different. There is a sullenness, even resentment, that was not present in 2008. Ask an Obama supporter about their man and as often as not you will get a few words about him and then a demeaning attack on Romney or Ryan.
But the crowd had taken their cue from Obama – the booing reflected the tone he had adopted. It was clever politics – whip up the crowd, then make a high-minded appeal for civility while at the same time trying to turn their anger into action.
Obama has taken on Ryan by name – presidential candidates, never mind incumbent presidents, don’t normally stoop to mentioning the bottom half of the opposing ticket.
In 2008, the Obama campaign was full of endless possibilities and expectations of a bright new horizon. This time, it’s a joyless slog. And there’s something else: Obama now tends to look emptily past rather than at his audiences. It’s as if the light in his eyes has gone out.
Obama has seized on the bone-headed 'legitimate rape' remarks of Todd Akin, a previously obscure figure running for the US Senate in Missouri, to try to make them central to his campaign.
At a New York fundraiser on Wednesday, Obama joked about referred 'the Senator of Missouri, Mr Akin' (he's a congressman) who 'sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class'.
The Obama campaign appears intent on turning the Democratic convention into one long gloat about Akin's comments in the hope of driving women voters away from Romney. Obama advisers are even talking of Akin being "on the ticket" with Romney and Ryan.
In Las Vegas, a campaign event and a stridently partisan one at that, Obama’s lectern was decorated with the presidential seal. Back in 2010, Obama’s then press secretary Robert Gibbs said that ‘at strictly political events we would not use’ the seal, which is a symbol of the office of the presidency not of a political candidate.
Another remarkable thing is that many of those at Obama’s events – like many people across the country - are not listening to him. In Reno on Tuesday evening, it was at times hard to follow what Obama was saying because of the chatter.
Knowing smile: Then-presidential hopeful Obama attends a rally at the Community College of Beaver County in Pennsylvania in 2008
In Las Vegas, the crowd chanted ‘Yes We Can’ before Obama appeared but it sounded like a dirge rather than the perky, upbeat chant of 2008. It was so different that one local reporter even walked over to me to ask what they were chanting.
Behind Obama was emblazoned the word ‘Forward’, a slogan once used by Josef Stalin. But at the core of Obama’s case is the notion that President George W. Bush’s policies are responsible for the mess America is in. Listening to him at times it is as if the last four years never happened.
Obama’s campaign schedule reveals a lot about how he seeks victory in November. Last week, he spend three days in Iowa and held nine events. Iowa has six electoral college votes of the 270 Obama needs to win.
Easy does it: President Obama gestures as he is interrupted by a protester as he speaks at a campaign event at Canyon Springs High School in Nevada earlier this week
50 shades of grey: The president shows signs of wear and hair with white and grey strands
What does this tell is? That Obama is on the defensive and knows the only way he can win re-election is by the narrowest of margins, by ‘slicing and dicing’ – his own pejorative term – and eking out a 51 to 49 per cent victory, crawling across the line to 270 electoral college votes.
Perhaps the most striking thing of all is Obama’s demeanour. He has visibly greyed over the past four years but that happens to most world leaders. What is more noteworthy is his lugubrious expression and the fact that he grimaces much more often than he smiles
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