As bruising as the midterm elections were for President Obama, he is facing the real winter of his discontent in the coming months. The most poignant aspect of the let-him-eat-crow press conference on Nov. 4 was Obama's plea that he never intended to be this kind of president. He came into office promising change, but that optimistic crusade ran into the buzz saw of the recession and the two wars. Within six months he owned those problems. By the summer of 2009 his own agenda, which had health care as its centerpiece, was being reviled at town meetings.
It's not clear whether history really does repeat itself, but people's memories do. Another president elected to bring change, Jimmy Carter, was done in by crises he never asked for. Like Carter, Obama relies on sweet reason. It was reasonable for Carter to ask the American people to cut down on heating their homes as a way of reducing our dependency on foreign oil -- the price of crude had skyrocketed when OPEC suddenly acquired teeth in the early seventies -- but the public hated the idea of energy conservation. Nobody cared if it was virtuous; they didn't want to shiver through winter in their own homes. Today it is reasonable for Obama to insure the millions of Americans who have no health coverage. But the average American hates the idea of paying higher taxes, and his opponents successfully tagged the new health care plan as a new tax.
In both cases reason suffered a setback emotionally. Despite his famous smile, Carter has exuded a kind of futile sadness after being rejected by the electorate in 1980. He lost to Ronald Reagan, whose presidency was one long exercise in image over reality. Reagan promised smaller government and a smaller debt when the exact opposite happened. Current Republicans, who were profligate spenders and runaway earmarkers under Bush, now purse their lips and promise the same things that Reagan didn't deliver. Obama's emotional nemesis is Sarah Palin. She goes one step beyond Reagan by telling lies and appealing to the worst in human nature.
It must be doubly sad for Obama to watch his achievements being shrouded in unreason and demagoguery and to know that he is being taken down by intellectual pygmies and hypocrites. But this isn't an elegy for sweet reason. The president needs to realize that his Achilles heel was emotional detachment. He came in as a fix-it-up executive -- a role he performs brilliantly -- yet his greatest appeal is the opposite: People want to be emotionally inspired and reassured. To this day Jimmy Carter defends himself by pointing out how right his energy policy proved to be (he also points with pride to the fact that under his administration, American oil imports fell dramatically). The one advantage that Obama may have is that his vision of the future is shared by millions of supporters, who can see that after this painful recovery is over, the U.S. must become more globalized, greener, oil independent, and higher on the scale of innovation (where we have dropped from first in the world to fifth or sixth).
In the winter of his discontent Obama will be opposed by some very cynical opponents, as well as by a despairing, aging work force in the Rust Belt that sees itself being rendered permanently unemployable. There will be many reasons to be sad, but I hope he doesn't give in to the sadness of reason. Instead of dwelling on the unreasonableness of his situation and the unfairness of history, Obama should reach deep inside and offer what the country wants emotionally. It doesn't defeat the mind when the heart steps in. Both can grow in moments of crisis, as this moment demands of us and our president.
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