Barack Obama gave some lively performances on the stump after that sorry debate, including before 30,000 roaring people in Madison, so someone seems to have told him how bad it was. Then on Friday, the jobs report surely put another spring in his step. But even so, let’s take stock. It’s now been three nationally televised public performances in a row—the convention speech, the 60 Minutes interview, and the debate—where he was pretty terrible; withdrawn and distant and just not there. Someone needs to ask the cut-to-the-chase question: is he enthusiastic about keeping this job, or he is just maybe tired of being president?
The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta raised the question right after the debate about whether Obama’s heart was still in it. Comparing today’s Obama to the guy we watched the first time he ran, she wrote: “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans—and even, I am sure, activists in his own party. His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.”
Others advance various speculations—for example, maybe he knows some terrible thing from deep in the national-security vaults that has him worried and preoccupied. Could be. But then again, remember that he was cracking wise in spring 2010 at the White House Correspondents Dinner while SEAL Team 6 was in the air on its way to Abbottabad. So I don’t think it’s that. I think he has days when he’s just not that into being president. This possibility can be viewed both sympathetic and judgmentally.
On the sympathy side, the story isn’t really about all those crises. He asked for the job, and they’re part of the territory, although it is undeniably the case that he confronted far more challenges than any other modern president upon entering office. The economic calamity in particular guaranteed that he’d have very little good news to present to the country for nearly the entire first term.
So that’s part of it, but mainly it’s that the reality of his term is undoubtedly so different, and so much worse, than the presidency he envisioned for himself. There’s no doubt that he did envision himself as transformational. Almost everything that had happened in his life before becoming president—succeeding at everything, often leaving observers in awe of him—clearly suggested to him that he’d conquer the presidency. He also believed, I think really genuinely believed, that he was and could be a post-partisan figure. He thought this because he wasn’t a product of the ’60s, and he said so explicitly on occasion, noting at one point in 2008 that we didn’t need to “relitigate the ’60s” anymore.
Well, maybe he didn’t. But someone did. Conservatives did, because they believe that’s when it all went sour, and for them, it’s good for business besides. I doubt Obama had ever been hated by anybody in his life. Now, 40 or so million Americans hate him. Must be stunning to him, still.
On the judgmental side, well, pal, millions of people are kind of counting on you here. All Americans, even the ones who hate you, need you to do your best every day to fix the economy, and you owe that effort to them—even the ones who hate you. Ditto to do your best to protect everyone from violence or attack. And to the people who support you, you owe something else: your best efforts to advance the agenda they wanted you to advance when they voted for you.
And to the people out there still using these last 30 days to make up their minds, Obama had better be aware that he needs to send them a forceful signal that he has zest for the job for another four years. In these next two debates, yeah, he has to do a far better job of pinning Mitt Romney down on his evasions, but there’s a very clear first order of business here that I hope Chicago understands: he needs to demonstrate unequivocally that he really wants the job for another four years.
I still think he can be a transformational president if he wins a second term. The economy will improve. If he gets a grand bargain, even if he does it on terms that liberals like me will be somewhat unhappy about, it will be recorded as a huge win. It might even tame the GOP a little. He can and should immerse himself in the implementation of health care. I think many aspects of Obamacare will be more popular once they’re in place, but there’s no question that the mandate will be a hardship on some families, and he’ll have to address that and maybe fix it if fixes are needed. With luck (and no, I’m not wishing death on anyone—maybe an Anthony Kennedy retirement, say), he can transform the Supreme Court and leave a center-left majority. And on foreign policy, well, who knows. There’s always the potential there for huge trouble, but at least as much potential for great triumphs.
But he has to win first, and to do that he has to show people he actually wants to win. On the most important stages the campaign has given him, he hasn’t been doing that lately at all.