A two-term Obama presidency wasn't a sure thing four years ago. And it definitely isn't one now.
From the beginning, this presidential campaign has been about discontent with the incumbent versus distrust of the challenger, and about which would trump the other less than two weeks from now on Election Day. Clearly Governor Mitt Romney’s shambles of a summer—during which unease grew over a wealthy nihilist disinclined to reveal anything credible about his finances or beliefs who is contemptuous of half the country at the other end of the economic and social spectrum—was offset for some voters by 90 minutes in early October when the Republican Party nominee forcefully berated a debate opponent who dithered between bemusement and narcolepsy. To what extent in that first debate the President of the United States’ performance sucked all light and gravity out of the surrounding cosmos, as breathless punditry would have it, is now irrelevant. I remain struck by the fact that, three weeks later, no one can remember a single brilliant thing spoken that evening by Romney or a single calamitous thing said by Barack Obama, but then I’m still of the view that Pluto might be a planet. The famous John Fordian formulation about legend displacing truth is more apt in politics than anywhere else.
When Romney made his secret comments about Deadbeat Nation as populated by 47 percent of us, the right’s reflexive tendency was to circle the wagons, probably because nothing he said sounded less natural than the sunrise. When the president underwhelmed on television, the left’s tendency was to loudly and vehemently declare it a betrayal. This explains why the right wins these contests. If the next two weeks are like the last three, Romney will be elected; Republicans are correct when they argue the momentum is now theirs, the only question being whether it’s moving as quickly as they claim or has been slowed by the second debate or the third or an epidemic of sanity. This brings out among Obama supporters not only hysteria, some of which is called for, but bitter accusations that the president tossed away an election that was in the bag, that the first debate displayed what a flawed proposition Obama always has been, unwilling to fight for anything and sabotaged by “kumbaya” delusions, as a columnist in the Los Angeles Times sneered earlier this week.
Obama supporters, this is reality calling. This election was never in the bag. It has turned into exactly the sort of election that people thought it was going to be a year ago, when reasonable conjecture was that national discontent made the president an underdog to a Massachusetts businessman who was his strongest possible opponent. At least some of what happened in the first debate was inevitable no matter how well or poorly the president did. Some portion of Americans was waiting for any reason at all to abandon Obama, discontent having brought them to a precipice at which they were stopped only by questions—most raised by Romney himself—about an option they might yet be persuaded was viable. No other explanation exists for Americans so hastily setting aside not only the 47-percent remark but economic policies that make the rich richer at everyone else’s expense, clandestine tax returns and Cayman Island bank accounts, saber-rattling over Syria and Iran, stated indifference to al-Qaeda and bin Laden’s death, utter hostility to women who should be voting against Romney by the legion, CEO-style condescension in the second debate and gyroscopic wavering in the third this last Monday night, and expediency so shameless that apparently everyone now accepts it as a matter of course.
There’s one problem with the left’s dream of a bare-knuckled Obama and it is that such an Obama never would have been elected. National unity or post-partisanship or “changing the tone” or kumbaya or whatever snotty euphemism you want to give to it is what the middle voted for in 2008; that was the Obama mandate. There actually are people who think Obama has been too partisan. There actually are people who think that he fought too hard for health-care reform and invested too much. There are people who think he’s the most radical president of all time—say, have you noticed he’s black?— because they haven’t lived long enough or aren’t informed enough to know that he’s not even the most radical president of the last 100 years, or 70 or 50, or that the centerpiece of Obama’s socialist manifesto is a health-care plan that’s to the right of one proposed 40 years ago by a president who, at that time, was farther to the right than any president in the 40 years preceding him.
I feel like the Dalai Lama having to point out that a downside always accompanies an upside, and certainly there are things about Barack Obama that give pause. There’s no denying that the vaunted communication skills that put him in office often deserted him once he got there; in significant ways his immigration policies have been harsher than those of his predecessor; and coming from someone who once was a constitutional scholar, his support for the extension of the Patriot Act and of the National Defense Authorization Act with its counter-terrorist provisions is dismaying. But you have to be paying no attention or utterly lacking in perspective to know that, even more than Bill Clinton, Obama has accomplished more of potentially far-reaching good having to do with war, peace, terrorism, world respect, economic stability, financial reform, industry and jobs, health care, women’s rights and gay rights—against greater circumstantial odds and in the face of a more ruthlessly monolithic opposition—than any president of this generation or last. As it pertains to the wiring of this particular chief executive, aloofness and reserve are the price paid for a combination of judgment, temperament, intelligence, and discipline that barely a decade ago would have seemed beyond what the political process could produce anymore, and if some of us don’t stop focusing on our irritation with the first debate and start focusing on the next 12 days, we will appear very silly people in the eyes of history half a century from now, if not six months into a Romney presidency.