CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The man who ran on hope and change didn’t walk away from them. He redefined them for the long haul.
And a president who has been accused of being a collectivist and a socialist didn’t abandon a vision of shared burdens and purposes. He replied forcefully with a call for a renewal of citizenship, “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
“We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights,” he declared, “that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
Rarely has an American election provided such a sharp clash of philosophies. When President Obama told a fired-up Democratic convention crowd that the contest will involve “the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” and “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future,” he was not exaggerating. He took the Republicans’ new radical individualism head on.
Obama’s was a speech aimed less at shaking up the campaign than at building on an existing narrative. The president did not defend his economic record. He left that to Bill Clinton. He did not even promise rapid recovery. On the contrary, he told voters: “I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy.”
Indeed, he seemed to reach back to John F. Kennedy’s summons that Americans first ask what they could do for the country. “As citizens,” Obama said, “we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
And thus his redefinition of hope and change. Faced with assertions that he can no longer inspire the elation he called forth four years ago, Obama challenged those who had supported him to stay in the fight for the longer term and do the work required to get where they originally wanted to go.