From The Daily Show to the doughnut shops of America, it looks an awful lot like 2008 all over again — and not just because 1,000 candidates are actively engaged in heated debates across the nation in the quest to control Congress in January. It is because once again, Barack Obama of Illinois is working the campaign trail, attempting to be a transformational figure that inspires voters to give him and his party a chance to govern.
The difference between then and now, of course, is obvious. In 2008, Obama was a candidate for president running against a record of failure; now he is a sitting president with a record of failure to defend.
The economic policies of the past are no longer the primary focus of the economic debate — not with unemployment at nearly 10 percent on President Obama's watch. President Bush's TARP bailout is not so visible, with Obama's car bailout and failed stimulus package actively in the news cycles. Bush's decision to increase funding for entitlement programs such as prescription programs for senior citizens pales in comparison with the diatribes over Obamacare.
Of course, just as Bush's plans passed with a majority of Republicans co-signing despite opposition from Democrats, Obama's health care reform (in its current form) and the stimulus package were done with the blessings of Democrats overcoming the angst of today's Republicans.
The problem with these comparisons is that Bush never ran as a post-partisan figure. But Obama cast himself as someone who was trying to transform the internal problems facing the nation with a unifying presence that trumped party politics and social divisiveness. While campaigning diligently to salvage congressional seats for Democrats on Capitol Hill, he and the Democratic National Committee are quickly learning that the magic of 2008 will not work the same way now. In part it is just being the face of failed Washington policies over the past election cycle (unlike running against that image in 2008), but it is also because of one small reality: You simply can't make a good first impression more than once.
The president's latest media blitz does not have the novelty of his 2008 tour. Everything, from his appearances on the Michael Smerconish Show to his sit-down interview with Jon Stewart, has been done before, leaving these appearances lacking the one ingredient that Democrats need most: persuasiveness to lure people back to the polls.
Now, two years after the history-making night of Nov. 4, 2008, and on the heels of more partisan bickering than ever — much of it either condoned or encouraged by the president — the image of what Barack Obama meant to America in 2008 has been washed away by the realities of what President Obama has been as the leader of the free world since January 2009. It is very easy to inspire people for change — and prompt people to vote — without a presidential and congressional record to answer for.
The failure to lower unemployment and the scandalous backroom deals needed to pass Obamacare have had a negative impact on the Obama charm. They marginalize Obama's media image in pop culture, transforming him from a catalyst for votes in 2008 to a reason to tune in to TV shows in 2010, something great for Nielsen ratings, but not enough to significantly alter poll numbers that indicate Democrats may lose both chambers of Congress.
By failing to live up to the campaign rhetoric and hopes that lifted candidate Obama to victory during the campaign of 2008 (with major disappointments coming from both his political left and right), President Obama may be learning that affability alone is not enough to turn the electoral tide. Great photo ops may suit the president as well today as they did in 2008, but they will not help his party maintain absolute power on Capitol Hill.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and the host of the morning radio show Launching Chicago With Lenny McAllister on WVON, The Talk of Chicago 1690 AM. He will be on CNN Sunday Morning this weekend at 7 a.m. EST. He is the author of an upcoming edition of the book The Obama Era, Part I (2008-2010): Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative), due out in the fall. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.