In the heat of divisive politics, President Obama declared that he was willing to be a one-term President if that's what it took to get a health care bill passed. It seemed at the time like a show of principle, the kind of thing a mature, adult leader would say rather than a self-serving politician. But in the background, Democrats believed that he would never have to live up to his words. At the time, the country hated Republicans more than ever. The 2008 election had been a rout. When re-election time came, there seemed to be no credible Republican candidate for President in 2012, much less a serious challenger.
The midterms radically changed that perception. Obama's "shellacking" press conference made him seem weak and uncertain. The worst had happened, which wasn't just the resounding setback of the progressive agenda. Far worse was the evidence that a principled leader who wanted to heal the country's corrosive gridlock had been defeated by the party of no. By acting as selfish and unscrupulous as they wanted, the Republicans halted the process of governance, blocked hundreds of appointments both judicial and executive, thumbed their noses at the Democrats' super-majority in the Senate, and to add insult to injury, ran against Obama's health care bill after they were the ones who ruined it. In the process of having their cake and eating it, too, the Republicans proved that being the party of no could fool most of the people most of the time.
Suddenly pundits were saying that a Romney or Huckabee had a chance against him in 2012 (today's Gallup poll shows him losing to both of them at this point). We began to witness the Jimmy Carterizing of Barack Obama. And the scary part is that he seems to want to fill the role. His most ardent supporters -- and I am one of them -- started to see his virtues as liabilities. This may not be the time for a laid-back man whose instincts are conciliatory. His brain trust didn't fix the economy. The recent trade meeting with the rest of the world brought back few victories, signaling that American prestige isn't what it used to be. So are our fears right? Is Obama the wrong leader at the wrong time? I think that Democrats have to make this a serious consideration, so here are two rationales that are struggling against each other:
Rationale #1-- America is going through a tough transition. Wall Street caused a worldwide recession, and in their anger, the rest of the world refused to share the pain. Instead, they told the U.S. to bear the burden, and we are. German, France, and China have recovered better and faster on their own, while we are weighed down by the same sagging housing market that triggered the meltdown. Obama cannot be blamed for this. It's a storm any President would buckle under. Even Roosevelt saw the Depression enter a double dip in 1937, despite all his best efforts. We don't have another Roosevelt today because the country is too divided. The public speaks out of two sides of its mouth. People cry for Washington to do something to help them, yet time after time they elect the most divisive candidates pledging to get the government off their backs. Obama believes that he gave the right medicine, but the patient rebelled and refused to swallow it. Nobody could do any better. Therefore keeping him as President, because of his vision of a better future, based on the campaign of 2008, still represents our best hope.
Rationale #2 -- Obama inspired us in 2008, but he buckled once he got into office. The Republicans ran roughshod over him, and instead of fighting back, he remained aloof and out of touch. The serious reforms that Obama promised in health care and the financial sector never materialized. He caved on the public option. He caved on punishing Wall Street and bringing them under strict regulations. Each piece of legislation that he calls a compromise is actually a defeat. Now that the tide has turned and the right wing is stronger than ever, Obama has been discredited. He is the same man he always was, but that's the problem. We need a warrior, not a negotiator. Divisiveness is incurable. The economy is horrible. Leaders can't escape paying the price for their failures, and we need to stop pretending that Obama has hidden potential waiting to be unleashed. He needs to step down and turn to what he is best at: inspiring the rest of the world. That's what got him the Nobel Peace Prize, so let him move on to the role he was born to fill.
I cannot choose between these two scenarios, because both rationales can be made to look persuasive. Maybe Hilary Clinton, aided by Bill's incredible political skills, can take the Republicans to the mat the way her husband decisively defeated Newt Gingrich and put an end to the Republican dominance of 1994. Or maybe it's foolish to think that history ever repeats itself. Obama is holding his finger in the dike, and just as he averted having the recession spiral into a depression, he is holding back the darkness of full-blown reactionary rule as represented by Sarah Palin's gleeful brand of know-nothing bigotry.
Since so many of us are confused, there are two things we need in order to move forward. The first is for the White House to realize that both rationales are in play. Taking the stand that the doctor gave the right medicine but the patient wouldn't swallow it just doesn't wash anymore. Second, Obama needs to do what it takes to wipe out rationale #2, because what defeats a sitting President isn't a crisis but a sense of paralysis. Jimmy Carter's one term brought about more productive legislation than anyone realizes, unfortunately his achievements are overshadowed by his paralysis over the Iran hostage crisis. Obama can't afford to let the same image overshadow his achievements, and his enormous potential. We need a fix-it president, but far more we need a President who can erase an image of weakness. Images have a way of turning into reality, and right now, the two are beginning to merge quite dangerously.