11/14/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Now the Democrats Must Lead

2012 may be remembered as the presidential election in which we chose between candidates about whom we could not be sure who they really were. Neither man was a new face. One had been president for four years, the other had been looking to become president for a decade. The best thing, however, about Barack Obama was the Democratic Party, and the worst thing about Mitt Romney was the Republican Party. The distance between the two parties in point of sanity and common sense was now so great as to leave an educated voter no choice at all. The reelection of Obama was fortunate, but it has left us uncertain. His way of negotiating with the Republicans from 2009 through 2011 was to offer them everything in his opening bid. Their response was to ask for more; so Obama asked his party for more; and things ground to a halt. This pattern became a public disgrace at the time of the debt-ceiling negotiations in July 2011.

The Obama presidency thus far has been commendable (health-care reform, equal rights for gay men and women in the military), and it has been detestable (permanent detention of terrorist suspects, expansion of drone warfare with no accountability). The performance is hard to characterize, finally, because there isn't one character who seems to inhabit it. Historians will be puzzled to determine what the president did between April and November 2010, and again between August 2011 and November 2012. Those are long stretches of vacant time, and not all of it can be blamed on the intractability of the Republican congress.

Obama likes to pronounce that the battle is over. ("I won.") But for a man who worked as a community organizer, he has been strangely resourceless in taking his case to the public. In his first term, he did that sporadically (often on talk shows and at town-hall meetings), before he had a specific case to recommend, and he went back after the opposition had rallied against him. The conditions that made for this impotence in 2009 remain in place for 2013. His 2012 victory speech began with the familiar grandiosity: "Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony...". But people are asking President Obama (at whose doorstep aeons may pause and galaxies wonder) to stop now, and look around, and plant himself in today. Look at the continent that burned last summer and flooded this fall, and say plainly what you mean to do. Obama, in the victory speech, went on to declare that we are not red states and blue states. He has been saying that since 2004, but the declaration is false; it is a forlorn prayer disguised as a statement of fact; and though the discretion of a moderate leader doesn't require him to admit the truth, his need to repeat the formula suggests that more magical thinking may be in store.

Magical thinking that obstructs persuasion and the steady pursuit of policy has come in two kinds. There is the neighborhood kind. Obama on November 3, 2007 told a crowd of supporters in Spartanburg, South Carolina: "Understand this: if American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I'll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America." This was an absurd picture. No president could do what Obama asked his listeners to believe he was going to do. The other kind of magical thinking is planetary. On June 3, 2008, when he had clinched that year's Democratic nomination, Obama said that some day people would look back and say "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Take the words of humble fellowship on walking the picket line, and the words of shouldering the burden as the shepherd of the universe, and compare Obama's actual contribution to care for the environment and his conduct during the Wisconsin protests against union-busting legislation put in by Governor Scott Walker. He did not even pause to say hello on a visit to a neighboring state.

A weak person who speaks with a strong voice may convince himself that he is a strong person. Obama said last December on 60 Minutes: "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president -- with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R. and Lincoln -- just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history." An elite and enviable company. Listeners who wink at self-deception on this scale are perhaps more guilty than the leader who falls into it. But President Obama is surrounded by people who flatter his sense of himself as a party of one. When he imagines that he can please Nancy Pelosi and Eric Cantor, too, his circle of admirers assure him that he can. Yet many of the president's associates must have witnessed some version of a scene that has become familiar in the White House. In the middle of negotiations on a matter of pressing concern, the president gets out of his chair and admonishes the gathered officials in a voice of cool dismissal, "Tell me when you've figured this out." And he leaves the room. This scene, identical in broad outline but in two quite different settings, appears in Ron Suskind's Confidence Men (on economic policy) and Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice (on negotiations with Iran).

"Temperament," wrote Emerson, "enters fully into the system of illusions... In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune." Though we have seen occasional impulsive departures, Barack Obama has returned again and again to the tune that fits his temperament. At every crossroads, from his success on health care to his failure in Afghanistan, he has chosen to follow the timid and conventional option, even among a group of advisers chosen for their caution and conventionality. In sending 33,000 troops to escalate the Afghanistan war, the president sided with generals Petraeus and McChrystal against generals Jones and Cartwright and Ambassador Eikenberry and Vice President Biden. In letting the too-big-to-fall banks remain too big to fail, he went along with Timothy Geithner over the dissent of Paul Volcker, Christina Romer, and Lawrence Summers. In extending the Bush tax cuts after 2010, he followed Peter Orszag, now in defiance even of Geithner (who had advised against continuing the cuts in public interviews). In putting Medicare and Social Security at risk for his "Grand Bargain," he was led by William Daley over the protest of congressional Democrats.

The baffled sincerity of Obama's farewell speech to his 2012 campaign workers showed that he has a vivid idea of the person he once was and an uneasy idea of the person he has become. The Democratic majority cannot wait for him to arrive at a conclusion about himself; but there will be signs if a change of tune is on the way. A president who saw his mistakes would get a new attorney general and a new secretary of energy. He would work hard to restore the civil liberties jeopardized after 2001, and as hard to achieve a more generous treatment of immigrants. He would speak early and often about global warming, submit legislation early, go to the public early, and not let up. Yet there is an amoral, debonair streak in Obama that often usurps the dignity of the practical and moral. When, on a recent appearance on the Daily Show, he was confronted about his expansion of the Bush-Cheney surveillance policies, he answered: "We actually have modified them... Now, they're not real sexy issues." The sheer badness of this reply may indicate a cynicism from which there is no return; but it is hard to know. Obama is always at his worst when behaving like a celebrity.

Two phrases this president seldom speaks are "the Constitution" and "the rule of law." It is, after all, the Constitution and the rule of law that curb alike the excesses of blue and red states, and even the excesses of a president. Anyway, the largest hope of 2012 surely rests not with the president, but with those senators of political skill and passion who have been elected or reelected: Sherrod Brown, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, and others. They may give the party a backbone it has missed in recent years. For these are unembarrassed Democrats, none of them as immature as Obama was in 2008. If the story is about "You" -- that "we" did it in 2012 and "we" must follow through -- let us say this time that we believe we did. And because we believe it, this time let us speak out when the lack of political courage in President Obama gives a shock to conscience. Gifted Democrats, such as those mentioned above, ought to recognize from the start how much of the burden of his second term they will have to bear.

A shorter version of this blog originally appeared at Dissent.