Unexpectedly Close Race Tough Campaign Forces Obama to Fight

With his centrist policies, Barack Obama tried to be a president for all Americans. But few in Washington were enthusiastic about his attempts to reach bipartisan compromise. In the unexpectedly tight race for his reelection, he has been forced to seek confrontation.

By Marc Hujer

With polls showing a neck-and-neck race, Obama is heading into a tough final phase of his reelection campaign against Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

With polls showing a neck-and-neck race, Obama is heading into a tough final phase of his reelection campaign against Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Barack Obama was a student at Punahou High School in Hawaii the first time he participated in a debate. At the time, he was already the kind of person America got to know three decades later, and the person television viewers saw last Tuesday and this Monday night: persuasive, usually superior to his opponent, sometimes cool, sometimes aggressive and always incredibly clever.

The high-school debate was about arms control. His fellow student Jeff Cox had prepared for weeks, but he was no match for Obama. His classmates were thrilled, but when they opened up their yearbooks at the end of the school year, Obama had penned the following words: "Jeff, I really enjoyed debating with you. You're a nice dude and fun to argue with. Since neither of us took it really seriously."

It may have been honest, but it left a stale aftertaste. Obama sounded like a know-it-all who was making fun of those who had listened to his arguments that evening.

Obama has been president of the United States for a little under four years, and shortly before his possible reelection on Nov. 6, his apparent firm conviction that he is superior to everyone else could prove to be his undoing. Who is Romney, after all? Hasn't he dealt with him already in a flood of TV ads that painted his opponent as an unscrupulous capitalist, someone who is only interested in his tax breaks and billionaire friends? He had already made it clear to his staff that he didn't consider Romney a serious rival.

Obama can often be a brilliant speaker, and judging by the way he treats his speechwriters, it's clear that he thinks he is better than they are. In fact, there are many areas in which he seems to feel that he is superior to others. He despises the nether regions of politics, the nitpicking aspect of negotiations with congressional leaders, his social obligations in Washington and the need to be chummy with fellow party members.

An Unexpectedly Close Race

All too often, Obama creates the impression that Washington is too tedious for his taste and the business of politics too banal. He doesn't dole out seats in his presidential box at the Kennedy Center as rewards, and he doesn't like giving rides to local politicians in his limousine when he returns to the airport after campaign appearances.

Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who rewarded political supporters with a night in one of the historic bedrooms at the White House, Obama didn't care about the needs of his fellow players. As often as possible, he has insisted on eating dinner with his family at 6:30 p.m. According to Michael Grunwald's book "The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era," the president's former economic advisor Larry Summers once told an aide: "If you're going to join the circus, sometimes you've got to dress up like a clown." But Obama never wanted to be a clown.

Such hubris takes its toll. Obama has had a serious problem since the first televised debate in early October, when he seemed listless and annoyed by Romney. He also seemed unfocused, as if he weren't taking the debate very seriously. Critics complained about his contemptuous looks and his pouting lips.

At that moment, it could no longer be denied that Obama had perhaps become dispirited and even tired of his office. The uninspired banter proved to be a political disaster, turning around an election campaign that Obama had seemed poised to win. Suddenly, the once-charismatic politician seemed like an average man who had given up his will to fight. His debate performance was a bitter disappointment and, to his most loyal supporters, even an insult.

It was also apparent that this race has become very unpredictable, and that the majorities on which Obama supporters had relied were much thinner than they had thought. The polls showed Obama losing his lead. Now, after the second and third debates, which went more smoothly for Obama, the two candidates are running almost neck-and-neck. Suddenly everyone in Washington thinks it's possible that Obama could lose the presidency in November.

Dashed Hopes

Obama may feel that the sudden turnaround is completely unwarranted, but he isn't judged by the standards applied to the average politician. He is the first black president. He was expected to liberate America from the trauma of the Bush years, and from two wars that created huge amounts of government debt and isolated the country internationally. He created enormous expectations, and many even believed he was capable of stopping climate change and rising sea levels, as well as ending the ideological feud between the parties. He could have become a king of sorts for America.

This is the standard against which he has to be judged today. He was already being casually referred to as a great president before he had even moved into the White House. He had hardly settled in before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Other great presidents with whom he was compared were seen as representative of an era, but only at the end of their presidencies, such as Abraham Lincoln with the end of slavery and Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the New Deal.

Obama, however, was already a legend before he faced the challenges of governing. It was his great speeches that inspired people, and he consistently garnered more respect for his words than his achievements. He knew how powerful his words were, and he recognized their paramount importance. In his philosophy class at the Punahou School in Hawaii, where he participated in his first debate, the teacher once asked her class what they feared the most. His fellow students said they feared things like death, loneliness, war and hell. Obama replied: "Words. Words are the power to be feared most."

More-of-the-Same Policy

But now he is merely a candidate trying to be reelected, which is one of the reasons his 2012 campaign has to feel like a disappointment, like the moment of demystification in a heroic story. "A symbol ran for President four years ago; today a man is seeking to hold onto that position," writes Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.

His supporters are still wearing "Obama '08" T-shirts, caps and pins. It's like a remembrance of better times, and even a warning to Obama not to forget the promises he made in that first campaign.

Some 12,000 people turned up at a campaign rally in Miami 10 days ago, many bringing along the old memorabilia. But instead of buying new items, they pulled their children away from the stands of street vendors selling this year's collection, emblazoned with the "Obama 2012" logo.

He jogged onto the stage on the basketball court at the University of Miami, looking grayer, older and marked by four years in the White House. The crowd cheered, and some of the excitement was back, the excitement felt by the 200,000 people who once stood in Chicago's Grant Park to hear him thank his voters for electing him. "We've come so far together," Obama said in Miami, but then, sounding dangerously sober, he took stock of things.

He didn't promise any new programs or sell any visions, saying only that he wanted to continue what he had been doing for the last four years. The word "Forward" appears on his campaign posters. Obama is touting a more-of-the-same policy, in a campaign virtually devoid of emotions. Only at the end of his speech did the preacher in Obama reemerge, when he said: "I still believe in you. I'm asking you to keep believing in me. … And if you do, we will win this election."


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