Some things had changed since Barack Obama rallied Boston supporters more than two-and-a half years ago at the Seaport World Trade Center.
At the earlier event, Obama was trying to become the Democratic nominee for president. When he stood on the platform, he was the newest figure in a constellation that included Deval Patrick, Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and John Kerry. Speaking on the eve of the Massachusetts presidential primary, he was a sum of possibilities, associations, and mystique.
Last Wednesday, in a fundraiser at the Cyclorama in the South End, Obama appeared after a series of warm-up speakers, including Patrick, but he gave his address as one figure on a platform, with a presidential backdrop of American flags.
Since this was a stump speech by an incumbent, there was a list of accomplishments, from partial progress on the economy, to health care reform, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the end of "don't ask don't tell." There were still echoes of campaign speeches in 2008, especially words about the country's historic march toward greatness through adversity. This time around, there was also talk about the grind of governing, with its compromises, setbacks, and detours. And, given the expected showdown with Republicans in Congress over the debt limit, Obama was compromising enough to talk about cutting waste and living within the nation's means.
"We're going to have to make some tough decisions about things we can do without," he said, "and we'll all have to make some sacrifices."
So the difference between Obama and Republicans was to be over how the sacrifice would be distributed. Though public opinion surveys show support for some of Obama's positions--ending tax cuts for the wealthy and subsidies for oil companies--there is also the poll by MassINC showing confidence in economic recovery in Massachusetts is slipping, despite the steady but modest improvement in employment figures.
Anxiety could also mean a chance for Republicans to advance a recovery plan with less government spending and regulation. Even if their steeper cuts in the budget eventually prove a stronger boost for the economy, the near-term result could still require more public sector layoffs and more out-of-pocket spending on what used to be covered by entitlement programs. And that, too, could be a source of anxiety, added to the continuing slippage the housing market.
With the beginning of the calendar year for the next presidential election still more than seven months off, polls show there is no single Republican challenger who can beat Obama. At the same time, Obama has been shown trailing a generic challenger with a Republican orientation. And Massachusetts is no exception to at least some shift in voter sentiment, with its Democratic governor re-elected by less than 50 percent of the vote and with Ted Kennedy succeeded by Scott Brown--also still without a strong challenger.
So, as he stood on the platform last Wednesday, Obama was trying to mobilize supporters for the grind of campaigning. Snapping tweetable photos with their smart phones, they looked ready to channel the team spirit personified on the podium by Kevin Garnett and Bill Russell. But this moment in the calendar and this gathering of (mostly) young professionals, as Obama acknowledged, was still a long way from the multitude of decisions by the less fortunate and less networked to bother voting.
"This is just the start," he said, "of what is going to be a steep climb."