Published for www.washingtonpost.com, May 7, 2012

“We’re not going back. . . . We’re going forward,” President Obama said during his formal campaign kickoff in Ohio. This rallying cry was pedestrian, and appropriately so. Obama is no longer a leader on horseback. His campaign — on the evidence of its first day — will be a long, unimaginative, partisan march to the sea.

Gone are the vast ambitions of national progress and healing. In Ohio on Saturday, Obama made a methodical appeal to various voting blocks — college-educated women, gays, Hispanics. He waded into the culture war on abortion, something he rarely did four years ago. And he accused the GOP of trickle-down hostility to the middle class.

To every interest group, a sop. On every wedge issue, a swat. To every class enemy, a turn in the tumbrel. Obama has gone “forward” all the way to the strategy of Walter Mondale.

The president may persuade voters with this message, but he apparently has given up trying to inspire them. And this is not a small thing, since the Obama brand once consisted mainly of inspiration.

The brand of the Obama reelection campaign, so far, is ruthlessness. It has accused Mitt Romney of being soft on Osama bin Laden. It has singled out some Romney donors by name for public attack. Romney, we are informed, enjoys shipping jobs abroad, which is “just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.” Obama has accused Republican congressional opponents of social Darwinism and indifference to autistic children.

U.S. politics has a long history of ruthlessness, which is not always a Nixon-like negative. Franklin Roosevelt matched the ruthlessness of dictators in his defense of democracy. Lyndon Johnson ruthlessly broke filibusters in pursuit of civil rights legislation. Robert Kennedy reportedly joked about his reputation: “I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”

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