Once it was all about "hope and change."
Now it's "we hope he changes."
Barack Obama was marketed in 2008 as some kind of messianic political god, leaving the enraptured throngs unshaken in their faith that every word from his mouth was pure gold.
And now the multitudes are out of work. Reality trumps rhetoric. The president's hair has turned from dark to gray under the weight of his first executive position.
He still has a record to run on. He pulled our troops out of Iraq, ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden and passed that massive expansion of federal power called Obamacare. I still think he'll win re-election. But at bottom he remains a man of rhetoric.
And Americans can't use rhetoric to pay their bills.
Political rapture is wonderful indeed, but it doesn't feed the kids or put gas in the car or take care of the college tuition. Voters still demand change, but they want the kind that's heavy in their pockets, the kind that jingles, not the lint that's there now. With millions upon millions still out of work, and many others underemployed, Obama leaves the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., asking for four more years and another chance.
And as he walked onto that convention stage for his acceptance speech Thursday — TV optics are so much better in a cramped indoor space than a large outdoor arena with rows of empty seats — I thought of how the dark-haired Obama loved to ask the magic question.
"So the first thing I want to do, Florida, is just ask you a very simple question," Obama said in August of 2008. "Do you think that you are better off now than you were four years ago or eight years ago? And if you don't think you're better off, do you think you can afford another four years of the same failed economic policies that we've had under George W. Bush?"
That's the trouble with rhetoric. It often bites the man who reads it.
He read his speech well Thursday, the winged words on a teleprompter, with the president stubbornly insisting that government is the engine that thinks it can.
"But when all is said and done," Obama told the Democratic delegates in Charlotte, "when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace — decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children's lives for decades to come.
"On every issue, the choice you face won't be just between the two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions of the future."
The pre-messianic Obama would have grinned and mocked such talk. Because a choice between a big-government Democrat and a big-government Republican is a choice between two horns on the head of the same goat. His Democrats use tax dollars to buy votes with social programs. The Republicans buy theirs with defense contracts.
Under Obama's watch, the national debt has ballooned, passing into the trillions and trillions, numbers inconceivable only a decade ago. And China holds our paper.
Yet there he was, offering more government, not less, while parading that savage icon of massive federal spending and authority, Franklin Roosevelt. Obama's message Thursday was that he's not in the White House to sing soothingly to us, but rather, he's been put here to tell us hard truths, even as he offered muffled code words like "shared responsibility" (more taxes) and "persistent experimentation" (more government).
"I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have," said the president. "You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one."
Many historians have concluded that Roosevelt's big-government moves only made the Depression worse, and that only a world war got the economy going. But Americans are so tired of war.
Obama gave a nod to the idea that "not every problem can be remedied with another government program," but who believes he means it? No one. He took control of one-sixth of the national economy with the Obamacare deal — a gutsy, highly principled and completely wrongheaded move, and hasn't shown any signs of changing.
"I'm asking you to rally around a set of goals for your country," he told us, "… and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That's what we can do in the next four years, and that's why I'm running for a second term as president of the United States."
Obama did have an opportunity, after his party lost the House in 2010, to pivot and change political course like a Chicago version of Bill Clinton, but he remains, stubbornly, a man of the left, and government is the hammer in his hand.
Hope may remain, but with Obama, change seems impossible.