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 re-election of Obama was a good thing, 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 standstill. This pattern became a public disgrace at the time of the debt-ceiling negotiations in July 2011.
The Obama presidency has been commendable (the Affordable Care Act, 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 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. But that 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 call it false, his need to repeat the ancient theme 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 will 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 clenched 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 shepherd of the universe, and compare Obama’s actual contribution to care for the environment and his actual behavior in 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.
There will be obvious signs if a change is in process. A president who saw his mistakes would get a new attorney general and a new secretary of energy. He would speak early and often about global warming, submit legislation early, go to the public early, and not let up. But 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 replied: “We have modified them. Now, they’re not real sexy issues.” That bad reply suggested a cynicism from which there may be no return; but Barack 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, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, and others. They may give the party a backbone it has missed in recent years. If the story is about “You”—that “we” did it in 2012 and “we” must follow through—let us say this time we believe that we did. And because we believe it, this time let us be sincere from the start when the lack of political courage in 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.
David Bromwich is the author of Hazlitt: the Mind of a Critic and editor of a selection of Edmund Burke’s speeches and letters, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform.