To anyone so foolish as to have persuaded himself otherwise, the past three weeks have been a reminder that Barack Obama is at best a slight favorite for re-election by a narrow margin.
Rick Santorum’s exit on Wednesday from a Republican primary race that already was settled means that the de facto nominee of the party, former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, has time for damage control that would have been too late three months from now. The odds are even or better that by June, the United States Supreme Court will overturn the president’s signal domestic accomplishment, the reform of the country’s health-care system. The second-degree murder case in Florida involving a self-designated vigilante who stalked an unarmed 17-year-old African American despite explicit instructions otherwise from police will be the most racially charged since the O.J. Simpson trial a decade and a half ago, except in this instance—if polling is to be believed—white rather than black Americans appear stubbornly impervious to the circumstances. The General Services Administration is embroiled in a stupefying Hangover 3 scandal involving a million-dollar weekend in Las Vegas, providing a vivid metaphor for an administration vulnerable to charges of excessive spending. Deaf to entreaties, North Korea steadfastly prepares to launch a nuclear missile, and the oppression of the Syrian people by that country’s ruling regime becomes more murderous even as it appears to slip further beyond the president’s influence. Of most immediate political note, a jobs report last Friday speaks to the precariousness of an economic recovery that voters believe is fragile and happening to someone else, if they believe it’s real at all. Fox News may have exhibited its usual glee about anything that looks like bad national tidings during the Obama presidency, but no one disagreed that the glass was half empty.
In the last two months, as the Republican nomination race deteriorated, and eight months after the nadir of Obama’s presidency that was the debt-ceiling debacle (a word that’s come to follow “debt ceiling” as naturally as “merry” precedes “Christmas”), Obama suddenly started looking unbeatable. With another eight months before the election, this may yet prove as illusory. One of the Republican lines on Obama is that he has no record to run on, and compared with other Republican lines regarding a war on religion, the conversion of the nation to European socialism, and a Kenyan Candidate conspiracy by which a Muslim baby smuggled into the country was raised to become president of the United States 50 years later, the no-record argument can only sound reasonable. But of course Obama has a record, and hardly a disreputable one. It encompasses the prevention of an economic Chernobyl by which the world’s entire financial system verged on meltdown, the passage of the first major regulatory reform of Wall Street in 30 years, the salvation of the auto industry and the creation of more jobs in three years than during the previous administration’s eight, the signing of a law codifying equal pay for equal work for women and the passage of the first major health-care reform since Medicare, the end of torture as an American policy and the sure-footed conduct of foreign affairs including the end of one war, the winding down of another, and the decimation of a foreign organization that murdered three thousand Americans and threatened to murder more. Half a century from now, historians will look back and conclude this resembles a solid B-plus presidency at a time when anything better may be a thing of the past.
The problem for Barack Obama is that he wasn’t elected to compile a record. The problem is that this was a presidency of mythic dimensions before it began, for the obvious reason that 150 years ago this particular occupant of the Oval Office would have been in chains on an auction block somewhere along the Mississippi River. Obama was elected to deliver us from not only an ominous present but a past that continually fell short of the American promise his election finally would fulfill. He was bound to disappoint us because we were bound to disappoint ourselves, because the public Barack Obama is a collaboration between someone who shares that name and the rest of us—both supporters and detractors—who forged our own ideas of what he embodied. This is how it’s possible that, even as evidence supports none of these premises, the country can believe he’s at once a secularist and a radical Muslim, a corporate sell-out who wakes every morning humming the Internationale. However bracing it might be for the moment, however relieved Democrats may understandably be, however much a Republican Party of such manifest bad faith has given him no choice, the new bare-fisted, more partisan Obama leaves us feeling as though we’ve woken from a dream. Obama’s was a mandate not of policy or even philosophy but of persona, the kind of “cult of personality” that Maoists and Stalinists used to tediously drone on about even as they indulged in such cults more than anyone. It was a mandate born of a political identity that interwove more psychic threads of the country than that of any president in the country’s history. Now the price of the president’s resurgence is disillusion even for those who admire him but may wonder how they would have felt if George W. Bush had made the comments about the Supreme Court that Obama did last week, comments that indicated either a constitutional cluelessness or a brazenly intimidating intent.
In other words, on one level Obama is the failure that some openly wanted him to be before he walked into the White House, and he never could have been anything else. Now his re-election depends on his ability to slap the electorate hard enough to snap it out of its depressed and frightened torpor without the electorate slapping back, which always is the instinct of anyone slapped. The president has to divorce the electorate from the majesty of what he represented without breaking the spell that brought him so far so fast. That Romney currently appears to be the weakest party nominee since Michael Dukakis assures nothing, even taking into account his poor standing with women, some of which may be salvageable, and his poor standing with Hispanics that is beyond salvaging. If events overwhelm Barack Obama, or if economic fear and insecurity should wax anew rather than continue to wane, however slowly, the independents who will decide the election won’t care about the descent of the jobless rate by incremental percentage points or about the fact that Romney is the phoniest politician of our lifetime; they won’t care about the car elevator or the dog on the roof or whether Romney is part of the one percent or the point zero zero zero one percent. The populace will opt for the cold mechanical opportunist who can fix a country that’s abandoned its grandest vision, which the object of that vision could never fulfill.
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