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Back in Gray: Obama Returns to Austin

In two speeches, the president previews his fall campaign pitch—and shows some wear-and-tear.
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Three-and-a-half years ago, just weeks into his long-shot campaign for President, a fresh-faced Barack Obama was visibly moved and surprised to be welcomed to Austin by a throng of 20,000 folks who turned out on a drizzly February day to see the nation’s newest hope-monger in action.

On Monday, it was a grayer and determinedly sober President Obama who landed in sweltering Austin for a private fundraiser and a speech at UT-Austin. In a high-dollar Democratic National Committee event at the Four Seasons Hotel, Obama took a few choice swipes at the GOP, warming up for his mid-term campaigning: “What they’re really counting on is amnesia,” he said. Republicans counting on a landslide in November “forgot I know how to politick pretty good, so I am happy to have this debate about what their version of the future is. They don’t have one.”

The President gave a preview of his—and Democrats’—emerging line of attack. Spoiler alert: It’s nowhere near as vague-but-uplifting as “Hope and Change.”

“[T]here has been a fundamental lack of seriousness on the other side,” he told the high-rollers at the Four Seasons. “We have spent the last twenty months governing; they have spent the last twenty months politicking…

“Right now the choice is between whether we go back to the policies that got us into this mess or whether we continue with the policies that got us out of this mess. And I’m confident that the American people, when they’re focused, as tough as these times are, they’re going to say, you know what, we can’t go back to the policies that were eroding our middle class and leading our jobs to go overseas … I’m confident that the American people want something different.”

It’s notoriously hard, of course, to win an election when your main pitch is that you’re “serious.” But Obama’s Austin appearances on Monday left little doubt that the President, headed into three heavy months of “politicking,” is in a damn serious mood—glum, even.

At UT’s intimate Gregory Gym, the ingredients for an old-fashioned barn-burner speech were all there: a fired-up crowd of 3,500, mostly students clad in orange, howling their approval at anybody who took the stage before the President materialized—sound guys, ultra-polite student government types who prayed and Pledged and National-Anthemed. They erupted on cue as Obama sauntered out to “Hail to the Chief,” looking cool and natty and preternaturally relaxed as ever.

But the wind went out of the crowd, and the president, after his usual light bantering and “I love you back”-ing. Obama waxed nostalgic about that February ’07 journey to Austin (“believe it or not, my hair was black then”), remembering how he hung out with Coach Mack Brown and “rubbed the longhorns in the locker room for good luck.” He recalled the huge crowd that cheered him in Austin, noting that they weren’t just there to see him. “You were there because you were hungry to see some fundamental change in America,” he said. “You believed in an America where all of us can reach for our dreams.”

But the dreams that soared with Obama’s campaign have long since hardened into gray realities of war, partisanship and a stubborn economic downturn. And the president’s brief address followed the same pattern as his political trajectory: initial frenzy of excitement—and then the big, gray fizzle.

If this was indeed a warm-up for Obama’s mid-term campaigning, there’s work to be done to hone the message. The President began by invoking his campaign pledges to end the war in Iraq and reform health care, repeating the phrase “a promise we’re keeping.” But that was it for this refrain. He reminded the folks that he’d pledged to jump-start the economy and get Americans back to work—and cited progress along those lines, though not quite a “promise kept.”

Speaking in sober terms about the continuing problems of the economy, Obama transitioned into his main theme by pointing out that, while some nameless people keep telling him “you should only focus on jobs … Education is the economic issue in this country.”

Disappointingly, the president offered no fresh ideas for education reform. He touted his “Race to the Top” initiative for early education (politely failing to mention that Gov. Rick Perry, who greeted him at the airport this morning, opposed Texas’ participation in the program). He spoke of a three-part “program,” which was little more than a broad set of principles (“Nobody should be denied a college education because they can’t afford it,” and so on). He mentioned three universities with innovative programs for keeping costs low—not including UT, though the university, he said, was “looking at” such models. One of his few applause lines came with an audience-pleasing aside: “You should not have to have a Ph.D. to apply for financial aid.”

But applause lines were almost shockingly few and far between. “Well,” said one of my companions afterward, “he has been beaten up for a while now.”

And it was true: The man who once inspired such wild, and wildly unrealistic, hopes did look worse for wear. Peering out at all these young people in orange, he said in closing, “reaffirms my belief that we will emerge from this storm and we will find bright days ahead.”

But listening to this president on this day, it was easier to feel the storm clouds ahead than to imagine a bright clearing. It was a reminder that while Americans voted for a hope-and-changer, what we got was a dedicated realist. Which might have been just what we needed, and still need. But the gray in his hair, 42 months after his initial rock-star appearance in Texas, matches the national mood perhaps too well. And there was no escaping it today, even for a few sunny moments in a college gym full of people longing for uplift.