Over the past month or two, as the president’s political position has continued to erode and he becomes more vulnerable, an extraordinary and vaguely preposterous conversation has taken shape. Variations on it have been advanced by everyone from former presidents chatting with Hollywood moguls on news cable TV to esteemed Sunday-morning newspaper columnists picking their way through the racial bric-à-brac of the presidential psyche. In a way, it’s the corollary of the birther discussion at the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that it’s a conversation we’ve never had about any other president.
The upshot of this conversation is whether it would be a betrayal of everything for which the president has been a metaphor, and of all the attendant mythologies that have accompanied his election and time in office, if he should offer a critique of the record of the man running against him who is running on that same record. In short, as we debate fundamental matters having to do with the role of government in our society, and having to do with more grand matters pertaining to nothing less than the meaning of America, we also debate—to an extent wholly unprecedented—the presidential identity as it reflects and is intertwined with those other things. In tactical terms, this translates into concerns about whether whatever harsh words should escape the presidential lips mean that the 2008 candidate of hope has become the candidate of “fear,” thereby tarnishing his “brand” (a word that will not appear in this space again).
No one has cast more doubt on this alleged journey by the president to fear from hope than the Man From Hope (Arkansas) himself, whose wisdom is so unassailable within Democratic circles that expressing reservations about it reminds us of a scene in Nicholas Ray’s ’50s film Bigger Than Life. In that movie, a benign James Mason becomes hooked on cortisone and resolves to murder his son, taking as his marching orders the story from the Old Testament in which God instructs Abraham to kill his child as a show of faith. Desperately, the wife pleads to Mason that God, after all, stopped Abraham from the deed at the last moment, to which Mason replies, “God was wrong.” To offer that Bill Clinton is wrong in his strategic wisdom is no less a heresy in the ears of some, but in a world of many wonders it’s always conceivable that Bill is as mischievous as that God who made merry with rains of frogs and pillars of salt and deaths of children. Clinton perhaps has come to the conclusion that the repudiation of Obama this fall would not only confirm the electoral error of 2008 having to do with the current secretary of state but also set her up nicely for a run in 2016 against an inexorably hapless President Romney.
More than anything else, hapless is the thing a president can’t be. Mean, angry, fearsome, arrogant, overreaching—none is as bad as hapless. The current president is beset by things largely beyond his control, which conspire to render him as ineffectual as fate and circumstance can, not to mention a monolithic opposition party and a seething Wall Street that Obama should have nationalized at the outset, given how far moderation got him. This president was elected as an idealist and represented people’s most exalted aspirations for America as much as any candidate since Ronald Reagan or Robert Kennedy, depending on which side of the ideological divide one stands; it may be inevitable in an increasingly Either/Or political world that Obama seems for so many to be the Either/Or president, with the caveat that my Either is your Or. Thus he is derided by both Fox News’ relentless drumbeat of “socialist, socialist, socialist” and leftists astonished and dismayed that he’s not Eugene Debs. But anguished punditry and the acknowledged difficulty of striking the right balance aside, a bit of Bare-Knuckle Barack can hardly hurt him now.
This will be at the expense not of the Better-Angels Barack but the Barack about whom everyone wondered not so long ago whether he was “tough” enough for the job. You may have noted that no one wonders that anymore, and it would only be a step further in the right direction should he finally realize, for instance, that reluctance to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment in order to solve another looming debt-ceiling crisis no longer makes sense on any level—economically, constitutionally or politically. If at the moment the only thing that stands between the presidency and Mitt Romney is Mitt Romney, then the president needs to get back in the way, ignoring the prison of his persona as defined by others, and seizing the freedom of nothing to lose.