Bush’s self-styled mission was clear from beginning to end, whether or not you agreed with his policies: He wanted to keep America safe and fight the terrorists. He also was blessed with an opponent, John F. Kerry, who struggled to define or defend himself and stumbled over his own message on national security.
What is Obama’s mission? His landmark economic legislation — the $814-billion Recovery Act — has been billed as a job creator, a job saver, a tax cutter and an investment in the nation’s future. It may be all of those things, but it has proved exceptionally hard to be all things to all people. As Vice President Joe Biden told me, few voters know who saved the teachers’ jobs in their children’s schools, while many employees had no idea they were getting a tax cut with the extra money in their paychecks. Both were in fact thanks to Obama’s Recovery Act.
The lesson of 2004 is that the president cannot be an empty vessel for hope, no matter how big or small his own hopeful base. And if he doesn’t fill the vessel with his own story of how and why he delivered on hope, then his opponents will fill it for him.