President Obama's message in 2008 was hope and change. In 2012, it was change takes time.
In 2014, it's don’t be so cynical.
As Obama struggles with the lowest approval ratings in his presidency and the real chance his party could lose the Senate in the midterm elections later this year, the one constant in his speeches — from weighty economic addresses to small fundraisers — is now: “Hope is a better choice than cynicism.”
But now the sentiment is seeping into nearly every single speech Obama delivers, highlighting how the White House is trying to use the message to win over voters and play off Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.
The approach comes in Obama’s sixth year on the job, and at a point where the signs that he is wearing out U.S. voters is growing.
A poll this week by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found 71 percent believe the country is on the wrong track, despite a relatively good run for the economy.
Seventy-nine percent expressed unhappiness with the political system; only 19 percent expressed satisfaction. Obama’s approval rating dropped to 40 percent.
Those poll numbers reflect the stiff headwinds Obama and his party face as they seek to hold on to the Senate, and it’s clear that Obama’s approach is intended to get his supporters to shake off their disappointment and adopt the old “fired up, ready to go” 2008 attitude.
In recent speeches in Austin and Kansas City, the words cynical or cynicism have appeared as many as a dozen times in the president’s text as Obama plays the role of a motivational speaker and psychologist for voters.
“You can’t afford to be cynical,” Obama told a packed crowd in Kansas City last week. “Cynicism is fashionable sometimes. You see it all over our culture, all over TV, everybody likes putting stuff down and being cynical and being negative, and that shows somehow that you’re sophisticated and you’re cool.
“You know what — cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon,” he continued, before ticking off a list of other non-cynical monumental events.
Those in Obama’s orbit say the president is trying to talk about cynicism in a way that will augment his hope and change message from 2008.
Even Obama’s staunchest supporters are somewhat deflated six years into his presidency, with many believing the president was not able to change Washington. They’ve sometimes been disappointed by Obama’s own decisions, such as his support for the National Security Agency’s programs.
Obama is telegraphing a larger message that big things are still possible, even as Washington seems out of order, his supporters say.
“He doesn't see ‘hope’ as blind optimism or happy talk but as a belief that forces us to keep trying in the face of adversity and fear and doubt,” said Jon Favreau, who served as Obama’s chief speechwriter at the White House and during his two presidential campaigns. “Cynicism is the idea that the game is rigged, everyone's in it for himself or herself, and there's no point in trying to make a difference.
“Embracing cynicism is a choice,” Favreau explained, defining what Obama means in these speeches. “And it's just as possible to choose a path where you understand the enormity of the challenges we're facing as a country, but keep forging ahead and trying anyway. And that's really been his message from day one."
Republicans say Obama simply hasn’t delivered and it’s no surprise that voters feel disappointed.
“President Obama got elected promising to change politics and America's position in the world and he's disappointed ever since on everything from the economy to healthcare, immigration and crises abroad,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the White House is pushing this message to rally the troops because "they're very conscious of how much time they have left to get things done.”
And some Democrats say Obama needs to take the ‘cynicism’ talk one step further.
“When you look at polls, there’s this real sense that the dream, the ambitions of the country are slipping away,” said one prominent Democratic strategist. “The question now becomes how do we tap into that? I think he’s trying to get things back on track but I think he and other Democrats need to give us something more that that, something more tangible.
Democrats, the strategist said, need an issue — like healthcare — or a particular cause to rally around.
“It’s hard to get people excited to fill sandbags every day but people will get excited about building the Hoover Dam,” the strategist said.
But one former senior administration official said that the rhetoric could help send a strong message, not just to the base, but also his biggest rival: Congress.
“I think it’s his way of telling folks on the Hill that we’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy here,” the former official said. “And that’s why he’s re-injecting hope — at a time when we all need it.”