The first time he said it was 10 years ago.
Back then, it seemed a brisk wind in a stuffy room, a reclamation of defining verities somehow lost in the smoke and haze of political expedience. He said it again last week and the effect was starkly different — somehow forlorn, like birthday cake after the party, or a Christmas tree set out on the curb on Jan. 2.
“I continue to believe,” said President Barack Obama, “we are simply more than a collection of red and blue states. We are the United States.”
The first time he said this, it brought the Democratic National Convention to its feet and made him a rock star. Ten years later, he’s a president halfway through his second term and he was speaking at a news conference the morning after the midterm elections, the morning after his party was drowned in a Republican deluge.
Doubtless, the president intended it as a statement of defiant principle. Instead it came across, to these ears, at least, as a rhetorical Hail Mary pass. It wasn’t so much that the president’s high-minded assertion was untrue as that it seemed immaterial. You wondered whether anyone was still listening.
Even by the not-stellar standards of modern politics, the campaign of 2014 was a disappointment. It was the Year of No Ideas. The Democrats had nothing to say and said it ineptly, running from the achievements of recent years — the Affordable Care Act, falling unemployment rates, a soaring stock market — and the president who presided over them like Usain Bolt from a house fire, defending themselves from Republican attack about as effectively as the Iraqi Army defends Iraq. Which is to say, not very. The party presented no compelling argument for itself. It didn’t just lack the courage of its convictions; it also lacked its convictions.
The Republicans also had nothing to say, but they said it loudly and with great certitude: “Obama caused Ebola! Obama caused ISIS! Obama is going to give your job to an illegal! GOP: 2014!”
Now the leaders of both parties are spouting the usual cliches about finding ways to work together. And anyone who believes that probably also believes singing an insurance company jingle will make your agent magically appear.
Rush Limbaugh probably came closer to predicting the next two years when he said Republicans were elected not to govern, but “to stop Barack Obama.” That probably is an accurate representation of the GOP mindset: a sense that it stands vindicated in its six-year strategy of obstruction, vilification, hostage-taking, fake outrage and manifest mendacity.
It is also likely a misreading of the mood of the American electorate.
People for whom everything is about politics tend to forget that most of us do not see the world that way. Red or blue, left or right, most Americans simply want a government that works, that gets things done, and a nation that stands for something, that means something in the world beyond just a parcel of land where a bunch of people live. This is why Obama’s words electrified 10 years ago; they seemed to connect people to ideals larger than their own lives.
And it is why the same words seem flatter than left-out cola 10 years later, the hope of larger ideals having been sequestered, government shutdowned, PAC’d and gridlocked down into a sobering realization of how truly small American politics can be.
Cowardice squared off against cynicism Tuesday, and cynicism won. But there is something wrong when those are the only options on the ballot.
We are supposed to be united states, the president says. But there are too many days lately when a sentiment that once grounded and ennobled feels fanciful and unlikely.
And there is something wrong with that, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald; reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.