It was only a small staffing change in the White House, but a symbolic one. Jon Favreau is no longer US President Barack Obama's first choice of speechwriter. Mr. Change is now turning increasingly to other ghost writers to come up with his material.
During the election campaign in 2008, Favreau's words, coming from Obama's mouth, reduced people to tears. Obama promised transformation, a change that one could believe in. Things certainly changed for Favreau, a young man with closely cropped hair. He started to date actresses; all of Washington was at his feet.
But while he still holds the title of chief speechwriter, he no longer pens the president's most important speeches, for example on how to deal with Iran or the new Afghanistan strategy.
Obama's words no longer focus on hope, but on the details of politics. "Where has Obama's inspiring oratory gone?" asked Michael Gerson of the Washington Post in a recent column. On the anniversary of Obama's inauguration, it seems that US citizens too have grown tired of the soaring rhetoric.
Jon Favreau is a symbol for the current political change in the US. The time for hope-filled flights of fancy are over. Obama now has to deal with everyday reality -- a reality that is currently extremely uncomfortable for the president.
The crushing defeat of the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley in the election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy could kill off Obama's most important domestic policy, the provision of health care insurance to more Americans. Now the Republicans will have enough votes to block the reform.
For Obama's critics, this is just one more piece of evidence for his demise. They point to the low approval ratings for the president -- only 46 percent -- and to the disappearance of Obama T-shirts from the streets. That is all true. However, they overlook the fact that America never really descended into a collective intoxication with Obama. Any sober analysis of the 2008 election result reveals a convincing but not overwhelming victory -- and one that was fired by the unpopularity of then-President George W. Bush, the terrible economic situation and a weak Republican opponent.
The thing that really fascinated Americans during the election was Barack Obama the person -- the unusual story of his success, the historic nature of his candidacy. As the US's first African-American president, Obama didn't just talk about change, like so many politicians before him -- he incorporated it. Seldom have the message and the messenger suited each other so well.
No Time for Change
However, there was probably never a less auspicious time for true change or for the nation to consciously address its weaknesses. In times of crisis, insecurity and defensiveness trump any openness to change. And since his inauguration Obama has had to deal almost exclusively with crisis management. The financial crisis, the automotive crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the global crisis. There have never been quite so many crises.
The opposition decided early on that they would build their comeback on the notion that hard times call for hard policies. Solidarity for the 47 million US citizens without health insurance? No thanks, said the Republicans. Make sacrifices for the climate? Why us? And when the calls for aid for Haiti came last week, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, an icon of the right, insinuated that Obama wanted to support his black brothers.
The Republicans could sooner or later end up being dominated by the Tea Party movement, a loose group of right-wing activists whose members define themselves by what they oppose.
This defensive stance is catching on. More than 40 percent of US citizens now think that Tea Party activism is a good thing. And in the Massachusetts election, the Republicans were able to score points with attacks on "big government" and the impending national bankruptcy. The American left is once again being acccused of being "socialist."
The terror threat is also being used to attack the Democrats. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been allowed to insinuate that Obama is a danger to the nation. And after the failed Christmas Day attack on Flight 253, even the New York Times was counting the days until the president swore that he would finally wage war on terrorism. Meanwhile commentators on both the left and right kept adding fuel to the fire.
Grand Visions Not Enough
The White House wants to keep a lid on the madness -- by joining in. Obama rushes from interview to interview. Yet his message is no longer as clear as it was during the election campaign. When it comes to health care reform, sometimes the president speaks about cutting costs, sometimes about moral duty. When it comes to Afghanistan, sometimes he talks about withdrawal, sometimes about victory.
Obama is getting bogged down. His grand visions, it seems, are not enough to govern the country.
However, it is far too soon to be talking about failure. Obama's team reacted well to the financial crisis, and America's image in the world has been redeemed. The Republicans, for their part, don't yet have a convincing candidate for the 2012 election. And 12 months after moving into the White House, no one can really claim that the president seems out of his depths or unpresidential. Nor has he embarrassed himself in the way that Bill Clinton did when he discussed his underwear with reporters after his inauguration.
The lack of a presidential aura had been one of the main arguments against Obama during the election campaign. Clinton is quoted as saying in a new book that someone like Obama would have been getting him coffee a few years ago.
From the very first day, Obama acted like he had always been president. But that also cost him support. Many of his younger supporters who had worked tirelessly during the campaign grumbled that Obama had become just like any other politician.
Perhaps his supporters will start flocking back to him, at the latest in 2012 -- given the lack of alternatives. In any case, his poll numbers will rise again when the economy starts to pick up.
But it's also possible that many of the disappointed will just stay home in future elections, including at the midterm elections in November. This would leave the playing field to angry voters. Then Obama would run the risk of being, despite his outstanding talent, a one-term president, brought down by circumstances. Members of his team are worried that Obama's political career could end with a superlative: the best US president, but at the wrong time.
The messiah must now become an everyday politician: more hands-on than head in the clouds, more short term than long, more Lyndon B. Johnson than John F. Kennedy. Obama needs to show stronger leadership and to be tougher, especially in dealing with the cacophonous chorus of his party colleagues in Congress.
That would be bad news for Jon Favreau and his fine turns of phrase. But it might be good news for Obama's track record.