CHARLOTTE, N.C. It began, like the Obama presidency itself, with the loftiest of hopes and the greatest of expectations.
The Democratic National Convention was to have opened Monday with a festival at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where, convention officials said, about 100,000 people would participate in a Labor Day festival that demonstrated the party's openness and inclusion.
After a couple of nights at the Time Warner Cable Arena, the convention was to have closed with President Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Bank of America Stadium, where DNC officials were planning to squeeze nearly 6,000 seats onto the field to expand the stadium's capacity beyond its usual 74,000.
But the speedway event was canceled ostensibly because of logistical problems but more likely because convention fundraising was running low. Then the Democrats canceled the stadium event in favor of the smaller arena ostensibly because of "severe thunderstorm" concerns but more likely because they couldn't be sure enough people would come to fill the stadium.
In fact, the forecast hadn't called for severe weather, and conditions were fine on Thursday night. The change caused thousands to be turned away, and the crush of crowds at the arena led authorities at one point to lock down the building for a second straight night leaving some delegates on the street while lobbyists enjoyed the proceedings inside.
It was quite a comedown from that heady night in Denver four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination in front of about 80,000 at Invesco Field. The candidate, on a stage set resembling a Greek temple, spoke about remaking the nation and the world.
The demigod turned out to be entirely human, and his results were disappointing. Now Democrats who dreamed of the biggest and the best in 2008 are learning to accept just good enough.
To appreciate the transformation, I spent some time Thursday afternoon in the convention hall with the Indiana delegation. Four years ago, Indiana was in play (it eventually went to Obama) and the delegation was seated prominently. This year, Obama isn't contesting Indiana, and the delegation was assigned to the back, in between solidly red Alabama and Idaho.
"It was just so moving, so emotional, to be just one individual in a sea of Democrats," Delegate Bionca Gambill of Terre Haute told me, recalling that night at Invesco. "There were a lot of people in tears." But this year, "you don't have that magic," she said. "We need to find some of that energy. I don't think we can find 100 percent of it."
A few rows back, Leona Glazebrooks of Indianapolis had similar recollections. "We felt confident, we felt good: A new generation was coming," she said. Now, she said, "I'm worried. Can you elect someone when (unemployment) isn't under 8 percent?"
As I parted with the Indiana delegation, James Taylor had taken the stage, and he performed "You've Got a Friend" for the delegates:
When you're down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, whoa, nothing is going right
One important thing is still going right for Obama: He remains narrowly favored to win, which is no small feat in this grim economy. And the party faithful in the hall, including the Hoosiers, remain passionately for him. But around the convention were worrying signs.
As the Washington Post's Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten reported, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel dropped his honorary co-chairmanship of the Obama campaign so he could help plug Obama's fundraising gap by raising big-dollar contributions for the pro-Obama super PAC. On the convention floor, Democrats bled from a self-inflicted injury as delegates squabbled over the platform's inexplicable omission of the phrase "God-given" and language recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
At the start of his indoor acceptance speech, Obama tried to recalibrate expectations, telling delegates that at the 2004 convention he "spoke about hope, not blind optimism, not wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty." He returned to the theme later, cautioning: "I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades."
It was a markedly different tone from that night in Denver four years ago, when Obama spoke of "the change we need right now" at that "defining moment" when he vowed to remake Washington. Had he mentioned years and decades back then, the drop in expectations might not have felt so steep.