The Barack Obama who appeared before Congress a few nights ago missed history’s memo that his presidency is over. It was the same Obama who missed the 2007 memo that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, the same Obama who missed the memo in late 2009 that health-care reform was doomed, the same Obama who missed the bulletin in the fall of 2012, following the first presidential debate, that Governor Mitt Romney was overtaking him in the campaign and on the way to defeating him. This isn’t to say that Obama’s not smart enough to recognize, and not human enough to rue, the ways in which his presidency must seem to many people, himself in particular, a missed opportunity. Obama came into office five years ago not with the traditional political ego but rather an historical ego, determined to be nothing less than a great president like his hero Abraham Lincoln, though it’s just as well for everyone that this was never really possible since Lincoln was Lincoln by virtue of the worst crisis in the country’s history.
Only two other presidents—George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt—have faced crises of something approaching a similar magnitude as Lincoln if not a similar nature, which had to do with a profound schism in the country’s identity. With any luck nothing will happen in the remainder of his term that calls upon Obama to measure up to those three. Short of such a cataclysm, five years into his presidency Obama probably has within his grasp a best-case final mark of B+, based on hard accomplishments that can’t be rewritten by his detractors no matter how much they try. These include saving the country from the worst economic disaster in eight decades, salvaging the nation’s most important manufacturing industry, fitfully overhauling a corrupt insurance system of health-care coverage, ending two wars, taking the offensive with substantive if not conclusive results against terrorism, and advancing—in some cases incrementally, in some cases marginally, in some cases belatedly—the causes of economic justice for women, immigration justice for Latinos, and social justice for gays. Of course this record also is marked by failures such as the inability to translate 90 percent public support for modest gun legislation into actuality.
The name James K. Polk springs to mind, assuming the name James K. Polk ever springs to anyone’s mind. More recent examples of presidents with records more considerable than acknowledged during their time in office are Harry Truman and Bill Clinton. Less impressive about Obama—given what everyone always has taken to be his talent for rhetorical sway—has been his rhetorical sway. Probably all of us expected him to have more impact on the national atmospherics that manifest themselves in terms of the national state of mind, in the manner of presidencies like Thomas Jefferson’s, Andrew Jackson’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, John Kennedy’s, and Ronald Reagan’s, though none with the possible exception of Jefferson was as confronted by an opposition so firmly in the grip of ideological psychosis. Unlike these presidents Obama has appeared unwilling or unable to yoke his power of oratory and quality of vision to political savvy and an inclination to bully that is at odds with everything he is, notwithstanding ludicrous Republican suggestions of monarchism. If our better angels don’t make deals with the Devil in heaven, they do in the real world while somehow managing to retain their wings.
On the other hand, the hindsight of 10 years from now might conclude differently about this president, especially if the Republican Party achieves the obsolescence that is two presidential defeats away, beginning in 2016 when the party’s right wing finally will take the nomination from the establishment wing (with Paul Ryan representing the closest thing to a compromise between the two). If you count out Barack Obama then you’ve missed a few memos of your own. By temperament the good-natured president doesn’t usually convey defiance, because defiance can be another word for belligerence—dangerous territory especially for an African American public official—yet defiant is what he now is, exultantly so. Obama never is so liberated as when there’s little to lose. For a president who has quoted William Faulkner about the past not even being past, he gives every indication of regarding the past as chains he must cut loose. In terms of the atmospherics if not the record, the Barack Obama that appeared before Congress a few nights ago is going for broke one more time and you can keep your memos. Missed memos are the stuff of history that’s being rewritten before it happens.