If you look at most presidents’ political careers, there’s usually some early defeat that teaches them some valuable lessons.
George W. Bush lost his bid for the House of Representatives in 1978, where his rival painted him as an easterner out of touch with the rural Texas district. Around that time, Bill Clinton was the youngest governor in America, and then the youngest ex-governor in America, before returning to the office two years later. George H. W. Bush ran for the Senate in Texas in 1964 and lost; he came back and won a House seat two years later. Ronald Reagan is a bit of an exception, although he clearly got a taste of defeat with the Goldwater loss in 1964 and later in his career with his near-miss primary bid in 1976. Jimmy Carter lost the 1966 Democratic primary for governor of Georgia.
Barack Obama’s political career has only one comparable stumble, and it seems to be of a different sort. In 2000, he launched a longshot bid to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush in a Democratic primary. Both at the time and in retrospect, it seemed a bizarre decision: Rush was a longtime fixture, and Obama, having been in the state legislature four years, started with 10 percent name recognition. Obama fell short for several reasons, but Rush appeared to skewer him in their final debate by asking the audience, “Just what’s he done? I mean, what’s he done?”
(Lesson: People named “Rush” are destined to be trouble for Barack Obama.)
In other words, when most of our recent presidents have run into trouble, they can look back on times when the voting electorate has given them the thumbs-down and they recalibrated, taking a more thorough measure of what the public thinks. Obama’s lone defeat was in a Democratic primary, where his positions didn’t seem to be the issue; it had to do with his experience, accomplishments, and the lack of a strong case to get rid of a pretty popular incumbent.
Now the public is yelling, as loud as it can, to Obama to stop and reverse direction.
Can Obama move back to the center? He might, and for all our sakes, I hope he does. But unlike many, many other folks who have sat in his office, he’s never had to do it before.