Dreams of 2008: Obama's Lost Magic
Two years on from his historic election victory, US President Barack Obama is trying to recover his lost magic as defeat for the Democrats looms in the midterm elections. But he is no longer the man he used to be, and his window of opportunity has passed.
He wants everything to be as it was before. He wants it to be as innocent and passionate, as honest and boundless. He wants it to be as full of promises and the conviction that everything is possible in the Land of Opportunity. Because, as he told his supporters back then, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." It was a rallying cry so powerful and romantic it sounded like a line from a good song.
Today, Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States. Back then, in 2008, he was probably the best election campaigner of all time. And now he is on the campaign trail again. This fall he is speaking in Philadelphia, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, spreading the message that "they" (the Republicans and their donors) want to rob "us" (open-minded, young Americans) of our future.
At the Crossroads
It is like a grown-up going back to the places of his youth: the public swimming pool where he learned to swim, the intersection where he had his first kiss. It's a sentimental journey, and at the same time an admission that youth doesn't last forever.
There are crossroads in every life, decisive moments. Afterwards, what was reality until a moment ago is just a memory, and the present has changed. The politician who once embodied a brave new alternative with his iconic slogan "Yes, we can" would probably love to be able to freeze frame the moment of his triumph as it was and hang on to the ease of those early, naive years. But that's not possible. Political careers, like biographies, succeed or fail -- but they do not stop.
Disappointment with Obama
Barack Obama is not a bad president. He is eloquent, sharp-witted, and has certainly not lost any of his talent since moving into the Oval Office. Members of his staff say he still listens to what people say. A senator who once lost an election to Obama says the president demands dissenting opinions and that he's reliable, funny and works best under pressure.
Nor is he a weak president. He has begun withdrawing American troops from Iraq. He has been able to strengthen his alliances. And he has tackled the global economic crisis with an $800 billion stimulus package and a reform of the financial markets. His education policies target performance and aim to improve the disastrously under-resourced public school system. Millions of Americans have been dreaming of healthcare reform for decades. Bill Clinton failed to get it passed. Barack Obama succeeded.
Why then does it appear as if the American people would prefer to bring about a political stalemate between the White House and the two chambers of Congress, and thus ensure their own ungovernability, rather than giving the president a little more time? Why is the United States again leaning toward the kind of Republicans who have little to offer but tax cuts and who left Obama with a legacy of two wars and an economic crisis?
Because Barack Obama is not as good as he wanted to be.
Sometimes We Can
"Yes, we can," was boundless and absolute, a moment of political ecstasy. It was a movement, and a young one to boot. Since then, a qualifier has emerged: sometimes. Sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. That's political reality. That's the grown-up Obama, with all his shortcomings and weaknesses.
And there have been many weaknesses. Obama allowed Congress to negotiate the details of his healthcare reform while he deliberately held back. What emerged was a half-hearted reform that is complicated and that is really a reform of the health insurance system. But to get that reform, Obama used up his political capital, the one window of opportunity every new president gets.
Weren't there more urgent issues he could have tackled, like energy reform for example, which would have entailed a real change of direction and which would have meant re-educating America's consumers? Or what about the labor market? Obama admits he underestimated the problem of unemployment, which stubbornly hovers above 9 percent. He also concedes that he set himself up to be portrayed as yet another Democratic big spender who happily doles out tax dollars.
During the presidential election campaign, he masterfully controlled his public image. In office, however, he has been sending out some rather strange signals. As the BP oil spill was polluting the Gulf of Mexico, his wife and younger daughter flew to Spain, while the president himself played basketball with his chums. It gave the impression that Obama was part of a carefree, macho group that amused itself while the country suffered.
- Part 1: Obama's Lost Magic
- Part 2: Obamaland Is No Longer United
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