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COMMENTARY

After four years of brutal prose, Obama searching for poetry

October 10, 2012|By James Rainey
  • President Obama speaks during a campaign stop at Ohio State University in Columbus.
President Obama speaks during a campaign stop at Ohio State University… (Tony Dejak / Associated…)

President Obama's trip Monday to sacred ground for the labor movement for the dedication of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument got more than its share of news coverage. It would be hard for the president's team to complain about stories across the television networks and spread over at least some newspapers' front pages.

And yet something was missing and will remain missing through election day, Nov. 6. That is the sense of moment and history that lent a multiplier effect to so much of the coverage of Obama's first run for president.

Four years ago, the headlines commonly spoke of "history" and stories were filled with language of moment. The possible election of a first African American president lent the sensibility, sometimes to stories that nothing explicitly to do with race. Journalists love to write in the warm language of "breakthroughs" and "firsts." They did that with some abandon in 2008. The photographic coverage buttressed the sense of occasion. Obama was often cast looking off in the distance at some mythic horizon or gesturing broadly.

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This has been reported many times, but it's harder to measure the absence of that sensibility in 2012 or the impact it's having on Obama and his campaign. It seemed obvious, though, during the visit to the mountain retreat near Keene, Calif., where the United Farm Workers of America has its headquarters.

The president spoke there and his full media contingent covered the event, but it was in much cooler language than they might have employed four years ago. They wrote about Obama "rallying the Latino vote" or playing to an important constituency. Stories noted the advantage of incumbent presidents -- able to time events such as dedication of monuments to their best political advantage. This week's Chavez event was covered as a political transaction.

In 2008, some of the press corps, at least, treated such moments as something more transcendent. The stories then might have made comparisons between UFW founder Chavez and Obama. They might even have imagined a meeting between the groundbreaking labor leader and the groundbreaking politician.

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Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo liked to say, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Much of the media, and the public, got particularly caught up in the poetry of Obama's first run. The economic calamity that greeted his administration forced him to govern with a particularly sober and mundane  prose.

There are many benefits to a president seeking a second term. But the advantage of novelty is not one of them.

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