Gone from four years ago was the overwhelming, almost awesome, sense of history, the tears of older African-Americans like Jesse Jackson. Gone also was the sense of an adventure about to begin.
When the president addressed his delirious supporters early on Wednesday morning in Chicago, it was a more seasoned Barack Obama who celebrated this victory, one who openly acknowledged “all the hardship we’ve been through” and “all the frustrations of Washington.” With him on stage, the Obama daughters were notably taller, becoming as their proud father noted, “strong, smart, beautiful young women.” Obama's hair was grayer. And the venue was different, with the tens of thousands gathered under the stars in Grant Park giving way to a smaller crowd inside McCormick Place.
But the president’s victory speech was every bit as important in signaling where the victor wants to go and every bit as aspirational as the one he delivered in 2008, while reflecting a newfound maturity that comes from having endured a rough first term. This was a more mature Obama than the president-elect who boasted, “Change has come to America” and led the crowd in a refrain of “Yes, we can!” Few paid much attention then to his warning: “There will be setbacks and false starts” or “We may not get there in one year or even one term.” They were, instead, swept up in his declaration that “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
Four years later, the president showed the bruises from a full term of partisan warfare with a hostile Congress and more than a year of combat with Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. And he was anything but naive about the battles ahead. He harbored no illusions that his 2-point win will cause the House GOP to embrace his solutions for the nation’s fiscal woes. “We will disagree,” he warned, “sometimes fiercely.” He added, “Progress will come in fits and starts. It's not always a straight line. It's not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems.”
No single statement better showed the difference that four years of experience can make than when he looked ahead to “the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.” Too often in the first term, the White House stepped back from that consensus-building, and far too often both parties rejected reasonable compromises.
Perhaps it was because of that experience and those bruises that the McCormick Place speech was uplifting in a way that Grant Park was not. It was a speech whose tone may have worked well for the president even earlier in the campaign, promising a good-faith effort at making a dysfunctional government work. It even acknowledged that the just-concluded campaign with its ceaseless assault of attack ads and nonstop pettiness was not exactly inspirational. “I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly,” he acknowledged. “And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics who tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos.”
Interestingly, the president did not use the speech to claim a sweeping mandate from his modest popular-vote win, a common mistake by reelected presidents who immediately start looking for big, historical things on which to build a legacy. Perhaps that is because a major part of his legacy was adopted in his first term in the measure he proudly calls 'Obamacare.' For his second term, he said he understands that voters are demanding “action, not politics as usual.” In a message to both parties – and with the upcoming fiscal cliff debate looming – Obama said, “You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit; reforming our tax code; fixing our immigration system; freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We've got more work to do.”
With his return to the White House on Wednesday afternoon, that work begins.