With the debt-ceiling deadline looming, the White House has been quick in recent days to cite public opinion polls. But if you want to take the temperature of President Obama’s political health and current agenda, just follow him to the University of Maryland. Three times in the last three years, Obama has gone to the College Park campus and three times his speeches have reflected his current standing, most recently on Friday when he took the 28-minute drive from the White House to the school.
The president who talked to 1,300 students on Friday was grayer and far more sober than the candidate who drew 18,000 wildly cheering supporters on February 11, 2008, the day before his big win in the Maryland primary, and more restrained and fatalistic than the still-new president who went there on September 17, 2009, to champion health care reform.
There was much talk of hope and change in those earlier appearances with little talk of debt and deficits and possible defeats in Congress.
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“This is our moment, this is our time,” he proclaimed in 2008, promising to “change this country and change the world.” Interrupted repeatedly by chants of “Yes we can,” he told the swooning students, “I’m pretty fired up. I am ready to go.” And he used his speech to speak of ending the war in Iraq, stopping genocide in Darfur, restoring the economy, capping emissions, and revolutionizing health care. Students left Comcast Center believing nothing was impossible.
When the president returned in 2009, some of that hope was dampened, the horizon a little more cramped, the vision more targeted. There was still that ritual reminder of the campaign, the back and forth of “Fired Up!” and “Ready to Go!” But most of the presentation was about how difficult he was finding it to keep his campaign promise, an almost rueful recollection that “I didn’t want to be a president who was just content with standing still” and a regretful acknowledgement that he had encountered “bickering” in Washington.
Now, almost two years later, he came to the campus overwhelmed by the daily bickering and fighting to keep, at the least, a status quo in which the country does not fall into default in less than two weeks.
This time, he uttered the word “hope” only once. And interestingly, this time he was taking hope from his audience rather than giving it to them. “I want all of you to recognize that when I look out at each and every one of you, this diverse crowd that we have, you give me incredible hope,” he said. “You inspire me. I am absolutely convinced that your generation will help us solve these problems.”
“Hope” was replaced as his favorite word by two much gloomier words—debt and deficit. Thirty-one times, they were intoned: "debt" 16 times, "deficit" 15 times.
Quick fixes that seemed to run through the prior speeches also were missing, replaced by an acknowledgement that things had not run according to the script presented back in that 2008 campaign appearance. “There’s no doubt that this economy has not recovered as fast as it needs to,” he said. “And the truth is, it’s going to take more time.”
There was still the love from the students—even a shouted encouragement from one student after Obama lamented that “my legs aren’t good enough to wear shorts.” But the campaign frenzy was gone. This, after all, was a politician standing before them after what he conceded had been “a very difficult two-and-a-half years.”