|America’s Failed Marriage to Barack Obama|
By Troy Senik
Wednesday, October 24 2012
Back in January of 2009 – a time when Barack Obama still believed that scripture could issue from somewhere other than his own lips – the new president saw fit to cite the Bible in his inaugural address, telling the overflow crowd on the National Mall in Washington that “the time has come to set aside childish things,” a reference to the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Obama’s no bantamweight when it comes to constructing his public remarks – take it from this former White House speechwriter – and he knows that the first rule of political speeches is identical to the first rule of rock concerts: you always play the hits. So it was no accident that he chose an allusion to a biblical passage that rings familiar even to many secular ears by virtue of its frequent inclusion in wedding ceremonies.
Now – at nearly four years’ distance and with the president’s political future on the line – the reference has become grimly ironic. For Obama’s relationship with the electorate has increasingly come to resemble a fraying marriage – and one whose undoing has been the president’s stubborn refusal to “set aside childish things.”
The Barack Obama of 2008 was something of a national dream date. Young, charismatic and idealistic, he promised a purification of politics; a cessation of the red vs. blue tribalism that had seemingly become the dominant reality of American politics since the 2000 presidential election. Obama’s America was to be a place where partisan allegiances were transcended by a sweeping sense of national unity. Fatigued by nearly a decade of intense partisan sniping, the voting public fell for it – and hard.
As appealing as this notion may have been on a superficial level, it was the very definition of “childish things.” It required a breathtaking hubris – not to mention a sweeping ignorance of American history – to imagine that electing one man to one office would defuse arguments on first principles among more than 300 million free citizens.
By the time that the first widespread Tea Party rallies began, less than three months after Obama’s inauguration, it became clear that the president’s vision would not hold. The American people continued to find liberal policy unappealing, no matter how personally compelling the man attempting to sell it from the Oval Office may have been.
This was the moment when Barack Obama’s marriage with the American people started to unravel. Like many impetuous unions, it was the product of pure passion rather than reason. Obama’s appeal was grounded in his personal qualities, not in a sober understanding of what he would do with his newfound power.
The trajectory of such relationships is predictable: Eventually, the wedding cake gets eaten, the gifts get put away and the rigors of daily life resume. It’s at this point that it can become clear – as it did with Obama – that the guy who’s a winning conversationalist over a steak and lobster dinner may not be terribly reliable when it comes to taking out the trash.
In the end, fundamentals matter. And as the economy continued to falter and debt continued to grow, there was no longer comfort to be found in the president’s rhetorical sweet nothings.
There was a window when Obama could have arrested this slide. After ramming Obamacare through Congress over the objections of a recalcitrant public, the electorate essentially gave him an ultimatum by handing Republicans enormous gains in the 2010 midterm elections: Shape up or we’re going to leave you. And yet, the president wasn’t up to the challenge.
Had he truly “set aside childish things,” he would have recognized that it was a moment ripe for that hallmark of maturity: compromise. For two years, he had acted only on his own ideological impulses, ignoring the country’s objections outright. And yet, despite the warning signs from the voters, he proved unwilling to embrace the sort of moderation that had saved Bill Clinton’s presidency when it was in similarly dire straits a decade and a half prior.
As a result, the Barack Obama of 2012 has become a figure shorn of his romantic trappings and, for the first time, even a target of ridicule, particularly in the wake of his listless performance in the first presidential debate in Denver. And while the president has yet to put aside childish things, it seems that the American people very well may have. Obama’s opponent lacks the finesse that the president brought to the campaign trail in 2008, but that doesn’t seem to matter much these days, as evinced by polls showing the two neck and neck in the race to occupy the White House come January.
Indeed, voters increasingly seem inclined to believe that a boring yet dependable partner is to be preferred over one who’s exciting but unreliable – to elect a president rather than an “American Idol” winner.
We won’t know for certain, of course, until Election Day, but even if Barack Obama wins reelection, this trend doesn’t augur well for him. Should he return, his second term will be a loveless marriage with the American people – and the countdown to his departure will begin on Inauguration Day.
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