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Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Politics | 8 comments

Obama: Can a Messiah Win Twice?

WASHINGTON — Four years ago this week, a young and inspirational senator who promised to turn history’s page swept the Iowa caucuses and began his irresistible rise to the White House.

Barack Obama was unlike any candidate the country had seen before. More than a mere politician, he became a cultural icon, “the biggest celebrity in the world,” as a John McCain ad accurately if mischievously described him. He was the object of near adoration among the young, launching what often felt like a religious revival.

Artists poured out musical compositions devoted to his victory in a rich variety of forms, from reggae and hip-hop to the Celtic folk song. (My personal favorite: “There’s no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.”) Electoral contests rarely hold out the possibility of making all things new, but Obama’s supporters in large numbers fervently believed that 2008 was exactly such a campaign.

As the attention of the politically minded has focused on the rather more down-to-earth contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that will help determine which Republican will face Obama in November, let us ponder what the coming year will bring for someone who must now seek re-election as a mere mortal.

Obama’s largest problem is not the daunting list of difficulties that have left the country understandably dispirited: the continuing sluggishness of the economy, the broken political culture of Washington, the anxiety over America’s future power and prosperity.
On each of these matters, Obama has plausible answers and, judging by improvements in his poll ratings since September, he has made headway in getting the country to accept them.

Most Americans still believe that Obama inherited rather than caused the economic turmoil. Barring another crisis in Europe, there is a decent chance of somewhat better times by Election Day. Obama’s fall offensive against Republicans in Congress has paid dividends. Voters seem inclined to blame Washington’s dysfunction on the GOP, not on a president they still rather like. Most also think Obama’s foreign policy has put the nation on a steadier course. To the extent that bellicosity from the Republicans — notably from Mitt Romney — portends a return to George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Obama will enjoy an advantage. Ron Paul’s strength in Iowa and New Hampshire suggests that there are even Republicans who are exhausted with foreign military adventures.

For all these reasons, Democrats are far more bullish on the
president’s re-election chances than they were even a few months ago, and for what it’s worth, I put the odds in his favor. Yet the threat that should most concern Obama may not be any of the particulars that usually decide elections but the inevitable clash between the extravagant hopes of 2008 and the messy reality of 2012.

In traveling around Iowa and New Hampshire over the last few weeks, I have been struck by the number of Democrats and independents who still more or less want Obama to win and deeply fear the consequences of a government dominated by Republicans. But having made this clear, they then bring up the ways in which they cannot summon the emotions on Obama’s behalf this year that they felt the first time around.

Some point to disappointment over his failure to confront the Republicans early enough and hard enough. How, they ask, could Obama possibly have expected cooperation from conservatives? Others are frustrated that he couldn’t bring Washington together, as he said he would. Still others point to real Obama achievements, including the stimulus and especially the health care law, and ask why he was unable to sell their merits to a majority of the electorate. And then there are those who wonder why the malefactors of finance have faced so little accountability.

Few of these voters would ever support a Republican, and most will turn out dutifully for Obama again. But a president who won election with 52.9 percent of the vote does not have a lot of margin. He needs to worry not just about issues but also about the spirit and morale of his supporters. In their jaunty song on Obama’s behalf four years ago, the alternative reggae band Michael Franti & Spearhead promised a country that would “soar through the sky like an eagle” and saw Obama as “seeking finds of a new light.”

These are not the standards of normal politics. Can voters who supported someone as a transcendent figure re-elect him as a normal, if resilient, political leader? This is Obama’s challenge.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at) (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • cjjack

    “But a president who won election with 52.9 percent of the vote does not have a lot of margin.”

    I’d counter that not too long ago, there was a president who’d won election with slightly less than half of the vote, yet managed to get re-elected.

    Bush also had the added handicap of not being a (somewhat tarnished) cultural icon. He’d never been a “messiah” for anyone, but he got a second term anyway.

    This was due in no small part to the fact that the Democrats put forth a candidate that looked good on paper, but was stiff and unconvincing in person. If you ignore the policies and focus on the superficial (like most voters), then Romney and Kerry have quite a bit in common.

    And while it is true that Obama is nowhere near in as strong as a position as Bush was in 2004, it is also true that Romney is arguably a weaker candidate then Kerry was.

  • Funny, the people that I know are far more disappointed by the fact that he kept the same financial “geniuses” as Bush, hired a lot of lobbyist types against his promise, expanded on the patriot act (and recently signed the NDAA), proffered yet another bailout, and seems as ready for war as many Republicans.

    I wonder how Dionne missed that sort of stuff.

  • The_Ohioan

    No one voted for a Messiah the first time. And any Democrat that would vote third party or not at all, simply doesn’t understand the stakes involved in the next election.

    Luckily, most women do and they are the likliest voters – especially young women – and will be very active this time.

    Whether men will care more for what happens to their women than their disappointment in the President so far, will determine the rest of the story.

  • RP

    My thoughts are there are two problems here.

    1. Can a messiah win twice? When a politician is looked upon in this manner, he/she can only fail to achieve the expectations of those voting for him/her. Most people have one definition of “messiah”, even though there are multiple difinitions and no politician can live up to that definition.
    2. Obama’s speech is not positive and does not offer “hope and change”. Ronald Reagan offered hope with his positive attitude and speeches like “its morning in America”. Obama offers divisive politics with his constant class warfare.

    For each person that believe Obama was the messiah, there is another that has the view that he is anything but. I offer that there are many that are turned off by the politics that he has promoted in Washington and the energized electorate for the upcoming election will not be anywhere near what it was in 2008. Those that helped sweep Obama into office have found him to be just another divisive politician. “Hope” is still being searched for as it sure was not delivered by the current President.

    However, the Republicans will find a way to continue to crash and burn like they have the past year and will deliver a victory for Obama. Sometimes you win and sometimes you get to continue by backing into the position when the opposition snatches defeat from victory.

  • Obama won in 2008 by attracting and efficiently organizing younger, more enthusiastic voters with a promise of reform.

    This time, he’s going for the more traditional win, using a lot of corporate money.

  • StockBoyLA

    RP, “Obama offers divisive politics with his constant class warfare.”

    What politics are you referring to when you say that Obama is engaging in divisive and constant class warfare?

  • zephyr

    I have to agree with Prof’s comments. I never viewed Obama as anything remotely approaching a “messiah”, but the contrast between he, his predecessor, and McCain was sufficient to make an easy choice. Now that we’ve had a chance to see O’s leadership skills, it’s back to choosing the lesser of evils. It requires no mental gymnastics to see the GOP is undeserving of the Oval Office, but that doesn’t mean Obama has earned any sort of pass… regardless of what EJD may imagine.

  • zephyr

    RP, your continuing efforts to pin “class warfare” on Obama (3 or 4 times now) are as silly as ever. The radical disparities between the few and the many with regard to income and influence in DC predate Obama’s emergence on the scene by at least a score. Those disparities are worsening, but it’s hardly Obama’s doing. Shoot the messenger much?

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