To many Americans, Barack Obama is two people.
There’s the pre-presidency Obama who lit up audiences, and America, prior to his 2008 election to the White House.
And then there’s the presidential Obama, who morphed into a chief executive who often resembled many other chief executives we’ve known.
He could be partisan and petulant. He argued with Republicans and sometimes with Democrats. He could be brooding and stone-cold distant. He could be stubborn, defensive, witty and downright charming.
In nearly four years, he has proved to be all of those things. But what he has not been, what we’ve never seen in the White House years, is what he was before then. That’s when Obama could soar and sing and preach and proclaim in a way this country has rarely seen before.
As a campaigner, he was something extraordinary.
How else could he have rocketed from 2004 convention keynoter to a senator who served just two years before he became the Democratic presidential nominee? How else could he have slid past first lady, senator and future secretary of state Hillary Clinton to get there?
He was a force of nature who touched people the way Bobby Kennedy once did — or maybe even Martin Luther King.
Bobby Kennedy. I read once that when he would parade through the streets of American cities in the back of open automobiles, the people would rush toward him and tear at him, ripping shirtsleeves and pilfering cufflinks.
I saw Barack Obama have that same effect on a Friday night in Topeka in 2006. He spoke at the downtown Ramada Inn at the invitation of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. The crowd rose and fell under his words, and when it was over, I met him in the hallway outside for the ride to the airport.
Obama exited the hall and for a moment it was just the two of us and a security guard. We began to move toward a waiting SUV in the basement.
But then something amazing happened. The crowd that Obama had just spoken to surged out the exits toward him, surrounded him and reached out. The jostling was like nothing I had ever experienced. Then I saw it — members of the crowd pulling at Obama’s shirt, popping buttons, pushing, grasping.
Security appeared to rescue him and off we went to the waiting vehicle. Funny, I remember little from our 40-minute talk in that quiet car.
But I remember what he could do to people. Now we’ve all experienced the expectations he could raise — and perhaps never reach.
As Mitt Romney closes in the polls, Obama needs to generate some of that same magic next week in Charlotte, N.C., if only to get Democrats to the polls 66 days from now. After the last four chaotic years, it won’t be easy.
He needs a forward-looking convention that sets out a specific plan for the economy and, yes, injects some of that “hopey-changey” stuff — as Sarah Palin so famously called it — back into the body politic.
Can he do it again? I’m not so sure.