Behind the Enthusiasm Gap, a War-Weary Obama?

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The president's solid but not wildly uplifting speech in Charlotte provided a glimpse into how he's changed since he took office.

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CHARLOTTE -- Barack Obama will never be that man again. Whoever he was in 2008, and 2004, Barack Obama will never have his easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm. "I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention," Obama told the thickly-packed crowd at the Time Warner Arena. "The times have changed -- and so have I."

That is the truth at the core of his oddly flat convention speech, and at the center of his technically skilled but strangely bloodless reelection campaign. Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans -- and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.

"I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president," the president said in the later half of his speech, to enormous applause. "And that means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn't return. I've shared the pain of families who've lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who've lost their jobs. If the critics are right that I've made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

It was, perhaps, the most personal passage in speech otherwise heavy on policy promises and talk of past accomplishments and the long road ahead. It was a substantive speech, but so substantive it at times seemed like the sort of thing he could give before an audience of interested experts at the Brookings Institution, rather than something designed to motivate voters to the polls (even as it explicitly asked for their vote).

"As I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America," Obama said. "Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I'm naïve about the magnitude of our challenges. I'm hopeful because of you."

But he didn't sound hopeful. He sounded worn out, maybe a little sad, keenly aware of all that was undone, singed by the clamorous voices of an America in need and the devastating toll of two wars on troops whose injuries he, as commander-in-chief, can too clearly see. Rather than the bearer of hopes, he sounded like a man looking for reasons to hope.

"I think about the young sailor I met at Walter Reed hospital, still recovering from a grenade attack that would cause him to have his leg amputated above the knee. Six months ago, we would watch him walk into a White House dinner honoring those who served in Iraq, tall and 20 pounds heavier, dashing in his uniform, with a big grin on his face; sturdy on his new leg. And I remember how a few months after that I would watch him on a bicycle, racing with his fellow wounded warriors on a sparkling spring day, inspiring other heroes who had just begun the hard path he had traveled," Obama said.

"He gives me hope. He gives me hope."

Obama rode into office as an anti-war president. But tonight, on stage, he was very much a war president.

And if anything came through in his remarks, it is that he is also a war-weary one. The civilian head of the U.S. military, Obama has had a window into all the death and destruction we hear measured out -- and much that we will never know of.

"In a world of new threats and new challenges, you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven," Obama said, in the passage in his speech that first saw a glint of energy. "Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. And we have. We've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead."

Think about what he's seen since the heady days of "Yes We Can" that is packed into that one paragraph.

"We have a choice," the president added later. "My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy, but from all that we've seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly."

It was in the foreign-policy section of the speech that he seemed most to come alive, beginning to riff from his prepared remarks and seemingly enjoying tweaking his opponent.

"You don't call Russia our number one enemy -- and not al-Qaeda -- unless you're still stuck in a Cold War mind warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally. My opponent said it was 'tragic' to end the war in Iraq, and he won't tell us how he'll end the war in Afghanistan. Well I have, and I will," said Obama.

"And while my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want, I'll use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work -- rebuilding roads and bridges; and schools and runways. After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it's time to do some nation-building right here at home."

If it was a familiar argument -- the 2003-2004 Democratic primary presidential contest talking about nation-building beginning at home quite a bit -- it is in part because we have been embroiled in war now for so very long.

On the final night of a well-orchestrated, but far from flawless, nominating convention, Obama did not bring the noise. He brought himself. Not a candidate, but a president -- for good and for ill.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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