The 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston will be remembered not because Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was portrayed in a favorable light, but because a major political talent made his national debut. A young, personable, idealistic, and liberal African-American U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama, delivered an inspiring keynote address in which he told an anxious nation that “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and a Latino America and an Asian America—there is the United States of America.” And America swooned.

Only the most cynical among us could have penetrated at the time the gauzy scrim that masked Obama’s purpose and ambition as he began his march to the highest office in the land. Little did the audience know that eight years later these supposedly United States would be riven by intense class, race, partisan, and sectarian divisions, as polarized factions struggled to define the size and scope of the federal government.

Little did the audience know that the man who spoke so eloquently at the podium would find himself, less than a decade hence, embracing and exploiting the very same “spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes,’” who “slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states,” that he once denounced.

The Obama legacy is therefore not confined to presiding over the worst economic recovery since World War II. It is distinguished not only by the president’s failure to address adequately or imaginatively America’s broken tax code and budget process, or by his lackadaisical approach to health entitlements. What makes Obama’s presidency ironic and indeed rather tragic is his persistent betrayal of the promises contained in that 2004 speech. The image of Obama as reconciler and unifier grows more distant and faint with each day. The president has not lessened our antagonisms or detoxified our political culture. He has made them worse.

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