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.
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."
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."
First-Term Accomplishments Fail to Impress
Obama has achieved a lot in four years. He ended the Iraq War, and he's in the process of ending the war in Afghanistan, no matter how awful the outcome. He prevented a second American economic depression, saved the auto industry and, against bitter opposition, passed his healthcare reform legislation. He also achieved something that George W. Bush tried in vain to do throughout his two terms: He caught al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
It's been a presidency without embarrassing mishaps, without dirty deals, without sex scandals and without nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
Obama's biggest problem is still the miserable economic situation. The US economy is growing at less than 2 percent, as slowly as it did last year, and unemployment is still at 7.8 percent.
His most loyal supporters, in particular, were disappointed by his first term. The Democrats had expected him to press home a progressive agenda, but that was never Obama's plan. When he talked about change, he meant reconciliation and accommodation.
In his inaugural speech in January 2009, he appealed to everyone's common sense and called for a departure from the old political turf wars. He didn't promise an ideological change of course, but rather America as a country governed by reason. He quoted Paul the Apostle's First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the New Testament, saying: "The time has come to set aside childish things." He was essentially asking his fellow Americans to grow up.
His policies were centrist. Everything he did was a blend of Republican and Democratic ideas. The $787 billion (€603 billion) economic stimulus program to combat the economic crisis contained spending programs that the Democrats wanted, as well as several billion dollars in tax cuts for the Republicans. And his most important project, healthcare reform, was based on a model that Obama's current rival, Mitt Romney, introduced when he was governor of the state of Massachusetts.
Second Term Could Herald Turnaround
Nevertheless, Obama never managed to truly work together with the Republicans. The opposition blocked his bills from the very start, and Obama himself quickly lost interest in his tireless quest for bipartisanship.
In fact, Obama's strategic goal was increasingly to isolate the Republicans, forcing them to the right so that he could occupy the political center. The theory was that the more reasonable his positions became, the more out-of-touch his opponents would necessarily appear. In that respect, they turned out to be more than accommodating. Two days after he had signed the economic stimulus package, the Tea Party movement was born, and with it the political conflict was driven toward the depths of right-wing delusions.
Was the hated Obama even a legitimate president, some asked? The Tea Party questioned the authenticity of his birth certificate. A film currently in theaters, billing itself as a documentary, paints Obama as a socialist whose real goal is to put his father's anti-colonial hatred into practice and continue to deliberately mismanage the United States until the end of his second term.
Even this sort of vitriol appeals to many mainstream Republicans today. It is unclear how much longer this might continue. The Republicans won't be able to continue their policy of stonewalling forever. If new agreements on reducing the national debt aren't reached by the end of the year, automatic tax increases and cuts in the military budget will come into effect that no Republican would stand for.
This is the reason why Obama, if he wins a second term, could become the president he initially set out to be, one who manages to bridge the great political divide. The Democrats are already the party with the more modern view of society, and they're also the reason why Obama still holds a substantial lead among female voters. The first bill he signed into law as president established that men and women are to receive equal pay for equal work. Obama has also spoken out in favor of gay marriage and for funding organizations like reproductive health service provider Planned Parenthood.
Supporters Hoping for a Fight
If he hasn't already spoiled his chances with his imperious demeanor, or by underestimating his opponent, he could indeed finish what he started.
But to do so, Obama will have to make good for the things he deliberately avoided in his first term. He'll have to use every available opportunity to attack the Republicans.
His voters want to see him fight for every vote. They want him to prove to them that he still believes in his own dream, the dream they still associate with him. They need this reassurance, after his cool and unemotional behavior during his first term. So is he entering his final battle? Or does he still see it all as a big show, for which he is much too clever?
In 1982, when Obama's mother was still alive and visited him in New York, where he was attending Columbia University, he took her to the movies. She wanted to see "Black Orpheus," a film that takes place in one of Rio de Janeiro's shanty towns, or favelas. He was indignant when he saw the film. He perceived it as naïve and as an insult to his intelligence, especially because of the way it portrayed the black characters as childish, and he almost walked out of the theater. He was irritated with his mother at first, but then he decided to indulge her.
"The depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen," Obama writes in his autobiography, "was … a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different."
He didn't walk out, after all, and stayed until the end. He knows what is expected of him.