Commentary Magazine


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President Obama’s Twice-Told Tale

As Alana noted, President Obama told a forum in Florida yesterday that the “most important lesson” he’s learned since taking office is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.” You can only change it “from the outside.”

But this is not something he learned since taking office. He knew it four years ago, having learned it from “history.” In his acceptance speech in 2008, he told the Democratic convention that:

“You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens — change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.”

Back when he first noted the lesson that change came to Washington, not from Washington, change was something produced by “defining moments” — such as the night he clinched the Democratic nomination (which he called a “defining moment” — the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”); or the night he was elected (which he called a “defining moment” — when “change has come to America”); or the day he was inaugurated (which he called “a moment that will define a generation”). The change-producing moments were his nomination, election, and inauguration. He was change personified.

Four years after the generation-defining moment, he teaches what he has purportedly learned from the last four years, but it is what four years ago he said history had already taught him. It is the same lesson both times, but this time the lesson is offered not as a reason to elect him, but as an excuse for what he has failed to do since he was elected. The underlying message is the opposite of the prior one: this time it is don’t blame him — change comes from outside.

That dismal record of mine, he seems to be saying — I didn’t build that.