If thou beest he; but O how fall’n! how chang’d . . .
The signs of the times are as foreboding as the chorus before the palace of Oedipus in Thebes. The jobless rate stands nominally at 8.3 percent, but is in reality considerably higher. Some 55 percent of voters say they’re not better off than they were four years ago, and more than 60 percent of them think the country is on the wrong track.
The oracles of Gallup and Rasmussen paint a gloomy picture for President Obama, but even if November should bring him another term of office, it will not restore him to the height from which he has tragically fallen.
Not so very long ago AOL’s Politics Daily was speculating about whether the president might “actually be a Zen Master, operating on a level so far above regular people that we can only hope to gain a bit of enlightenment from his calm demeanor.”
What flattery could not supply, fortune made good. In the months before Obama entered the White House, two of his books sat atop bestseller lists; vast crowds greeted him, not only in the United States, but even in Berlin; the president of the French Republic virtually endorsed his candidacy in the Elysée Palace; and the stock market crashed at the most propitious moment possible.
In the early days of his presidency, Obama was still clothed with the transcendent brightness of a campaign in which he had portrayed himself as a different kind of politician. As a candidate for the White House, he renounced the “slash-and-burn” techniques of “attack politics”: “We’re not going to go around doing negative ads,” he said. “We’re going to keep it positive, going to talk about the issues . . .” The lofty tone was faithful to his 2006 manifesto The Audacity of Hope,
in which he envisioned a “new kind of politics,” one that would replace the “bitter partisanship” of the past. The new politics would favor consensus and common sense over divisiveness and ideology, and would build on “those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.”
The new politics never materialized. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama lamented the “fractured” country America was becoming. Yet in the fourth year of his presidency, he presides over a nation more divided than it was on the day he took office.
As Obama’s faith in consensual politics waned, he discovered the virtues of methods he had once deplored, and his reelection effort so far has been largely devoted, not to laying out his own plans for the future, but to discrediting the character and motives of his opponent. The president, to be sure, has no obligation to sacrifice his chances by eschewing tactics other politicians routinely use. But once he held himself to a higher standard. What happened?
. . . intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability . . .
At the time of his election in 2008, Barack Obama possessed, in the eyes of much of the world, a stock of moral authority greater than that of any other American then living. Not since Woodrow Wilson sailed to Europe on the George Washington to negotiate a peace treaty in Paris had an American statesman inspired so much hope in so many hearts.
“When President Wilson left Washington,” John Maynard Keynes wrote, “he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history.” Yet great as Wilson’s prestige in December 1918 was, Obama’s in 2008–09 was greater. In the 1918 midterm elections, Republicans gained majorities in the House and Senate, victories that tarnished Wilson’s prestige and would prove a formidable check on his potency. Obama, by contrast, presided in 2009–10 over a Washington in which Democrats controlled both the executive and the legislative branches. His power was further enhanced by the gravity of the economic crisis. Wall Street and Detroit lay prostrate at his feet, and millions of Americans hungered for his leadership.