The notion that somehow changing the tone means simply that we let them say whatever they want to say or that there are no disagreements and that we’re all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ is obviously not what I had in mind and not how I function. And anybody who thinks I have, hasn’t been paying attention. ~Barack Obama

Granted, this isn’t how he functions.  The thing about the “politics of hope” rhetoric is that it was always nonsense.  The problem Obama has had is that he made such nonsense the core of his campaign.  His speeches and advertisements have stressed transcending the “smallness of our politics” and bridging “the divisions in Washington,” buying into one of the lamest diagnoses of our present predicament: that our government is actually riven by meaningful disagreement and policy debate.  Would that it were so!  It has been Obama who has led everyone to believe that the “new tone” means always taking the high road, and to date his idea of taking the high road has meant making no direct criticisms of his opponents.  Observers can be forgiven for associating his “hope” talk with his unwillingness to throw at least a few elbows. 

Maybe he doesn’t want everyone to sing Kumbaya, but when a key theme of the campaign is so amorphous and vacuous as his has been it is very easy for observers to interpret the happy talk about hope and unity in ways that Obama never intended it to be taken.  This is where Obama has failed.  He speaks generically about transformation, hope, unity and so on, and most of the time he quite deliberately avoids “drawing distinctions” with particular candidates, taking refuge in vague remarks about “some people” getting things wrong or circumlocutions like ”there were those of us who showed poor judgement,” etc.  In his debate performances, he gives the impression of a seminar instructor trying to generate a discussion among his students rather than a candidate for office.  He seems to think that his political rivals are supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt and not turn his positions to their advantage, but then this is more evidence that he isn’t ready to compete in this arena.