Barack Obama is given to the long view, which comes in handy for a man at his particular nadir in this particular moment. More than the vexing and inexplicably botched launch of the Affordable Care Act, the president has been undone by ten words uttered enough times so as to feel exponential: If you like your health plan, you can keep it. This is the first time that reasonable people have caught the president telling an explicitly incontestable untruth, however small a percentage of insurance policies it may actually apply to, and therefore our wince-threshold with Obama is distinctly lower than with those who so often have said so many preposterous things about him for the past five years that long ago we exhausted winces in favor of twitches and spasms, until our outrage finally became catatonic. Accusations ever louder and ever growing of “socialist” and “Kenyan” have become background noise. The liar who lies once and badly—assuming the worst, which is that he knew better—commands our attention.
Obama’s winter of discontent coincides with real winter, as well as the worst poll numbers of his presidency, a weary if not dispirited interview on the cable-news channel most identified with him, and an appearance in Africa on behalf of Nelson Mandela that was exemplary in every way except for how it conveyed his otherness to those disposed to perceiving him as Other. Winter and its surrounding holidays are made for long views during which the president might take stock, ruminating on the most significant evidence of his deteriorating position, which is polls that show him losing the confidence of the young, who can be at once fitfully forgiving and rabidly less so. In his interview he wasn’t asked directly about The Lie; he may soon wish that he was, so that he can address it before its impact settles in further. But the answering will be delicate whenever he gets to it—an explanation not an excuse that, as surgically as rhetoric allows, dissects the thought process behind aggressive prevarication. The president’s hope may be that people will forget, and on some conscious level they might. On another level they never will; the lie will always be a bug in the machinery of our bargain with him, and so needs to be fixed if it can. After that, with three years of his presidency left, he needs to start laying claim to the moral unquantifiables of our politics, to become tribune for even lost causes such as the most lost of all: the disintegration of what not so long ago still hoped to be an egalitarian republic into a craven and bitter oligarchy.
Nonetheless some remain a long way from giving up on Barack Obama. This includes even those who have found his management skills wanting, who have been baffled by his inability to communicate on the small things as well as he does on the big, who are disconcerted by his drone policy and disappointed by his failure to nationalize the banks on his first day in office and dismayed by his presidency’s worst and most dishonest moment—botched websites notwithstanding—which was his signing of the baldly unconstitutional National Defense Authorization Act. But as the mainstream media seizes the opportunity to legitimize itself by proving it can be as tough on Obama as the rightstream media, and as the left masturbates the erogenous zone of dissatisfaction it has felt that the president really isn’t the radical his enemies claim he is, it’s also true that a man is measured in no small part by his enemies. Obama has the worst enemies anyone can have, and they’re enemies who have drawn a line in the sand on him from the beginning, hating him for all the reasons that others have been for him. In short, whatever his failings, the president has been made the embodiment of things bigger and better than him, and his political survival is tantamount to the survival of those things. It would be good to remember this, since the long view is not just for presidents but those who choose them.