Dispatches From the Democratic National Convention

How Can Obama Convince People He Can Change Politics—Again?
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 4 2012 6:44 PM

Dispatches From the Democratic National Convention

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If Romney loses, won’t Republicans become more partisan?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Gentlemen, 

I have taken my position on the floor for the festivities. Once again, I'm near the New Mexico delegation. To get here, I enjoyed a series of rain showers and the strange, constantly changing set of requirements to get into the hall. In the half a dozen trips I've made to the Time Warner Center, the rules have never been the same way twice. This matters when you're adding an extra mile to your walk. I think the Secret Service code name for this operation is switchback.

Doing all this walking, I ran into a former senior Obama administration official (I don't mean he was demoted; he's a civilian now). I asked him how Obama was going to convince people that his promises for a second term were ever going to come true given the level of partisanship. He didn't have an answer for me. He tried to find one, outlining how the president would be able to go to Congress in 2013 and say that the people have spoken and that he has their mandate. But then he paused and said, "Of course, that was his message in 2008, too."

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Any incumbent faces this question, but there's a large distance between promise and reality with Obama because his big promise was to change politics and even he admits that the atmosphere in Washington is as bad as it has ever been. So when voters hear the president, won't they just ignore his promises because Washington is clotted with hairballs, frustration, and despair? The president's campaign says that if Obama wins, the fever will break and Republicans will be forced to bend a little. But might it not be the case that Republicans will conclude that they lost because Romney was a weak candidate who didn't really run on their issues? Republicans could reasonably conclude, in this scenario, that they lost because they weren't conservative enough. Plus, the off-year energy in 2014 will be in that part of the party that will demand constancy to conservative ideas; so no wobbling or you'll face a primary. 

Sasha, your campaign versus election construction is the right one. The campaign is lame, but the election is for real. So perhaps we should spread that word near and far. I'm going to stop people in the street and tell them.

John 

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.