Politics Not As Usual

Obama’s Second-Term Surprise: Politics Not As Usual

Expect the unexpected, say people who know the president well. James Warren on what’s in store for the next four years.

Paul Beaty / AP Photo

No matter how they tried, the joyous crowd of the pre-selected celebrants at Chicago’s McCormick Place could not deny the changes four years had wrought. In contrast to the unbridled spontaneity of that Tuesday night in a public park back in November 2008, this year’s Obama victory rally was the result of carefully engineered stagecraft.

There is, after all, a basic difference between the soft glow of infatuation and the hard realities of a long-term relationship.

But even Obama’s biggest fans may not know him as well as they think. Whether or not his second term is more productive than the first, it’s sure to be more revealing of his essential character. “Aside from his campaign team, strategy, and tactics—all of which again proved to be in a class of their own—the election showed something more important,” says David Maraniss, author of the acclaimed biography Barack Obama: The Story. “Barack Obama moves to his own peculiar rhythms. There are times when he appears behind the curve—and then suddenly he’s way out front. That happened again in these final weeks, from the first debate to election night.”

At a table in a North Side bakery after the McCormick Place victory bash, Maraniss predicts that Obama will continue to surprise people in his second term. Apparent failures and inactions will come around and transform into something else, Maraniss anticipates. That’s often the case with Obama, he says: the president operates at his own pace, no matter how it tests the patience of people around him. Take the gay and lesbian community: for two years they despaired, imagining Obama had forgotten the support they had given him. But then he repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and he was vindicated. “He has a longer sense of time than most of society and, certainly, the political culture,” says Maraniss.

Obama’s close friend John Rogers Jr. concurs. The prominent Chicago investment manager, a member of the Obama basketball posse, recalls how the then-freshman senator frustrated his staff in the early days of the 2008 campaign. The candidate, a long shot at the time, seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time stumping in Iowa before the caucuses. “He stayed with his game plan even though it didn’t seem to be working and people wanted him to change it,” Rogers recalls. “A lot of people were skeptical of the whole Iowa game. But he said he would stick with it. That took vision and a real sense of believing in a plan.” This past Tuesday the president’s basketball posse continued its ritual of playing on Election Day.

Just to keep things interesting, the president still has the Republicans in Congress to deal with. Tuesday’s vote left them with their House majority intact and the ability to stage a Senate filibuster whenever they choose. As if that weren’t enough, with the two parties engaged in a high-stakes political pas de deux over matters like the “fiscal cliff,” there’s a possibility that the GOP itself might be upended by an internecine struggle in the wake of Mitt Romney’s decisive defeat.

All the same, Maraniss suggests that the president may be stronger now than he has ever been. Much of Obama’s career, including the important years as a community organizer in Chicago, has been a struggle between his raw idealism and the need to confront the world as it is. The experience has left the president with a combination of the two impulses and a firm belief in holding onto power while not necessarily expanding it too quickly.

In Obama’s world there are few permanent friends—or permanent enemies, either. Power abhors a vacuum, as he sees things, and unless one holds onto it, someone else will grab it. On Tuesday he held on. Now Maraniss suspects that Obama intends to put that power to use, tackling political challenges people have accused him of neglecting until now—longtime problems such as budgetary and fiscal issues, and gun control.

With the election over at last, Obama may well be ready to get things done. “He doesn’t just want to survive,” says Maraniss (who also wrote First in His Class, the most insightful biography yet of Bill Clinton). “He wants to be a great man.” It’s just possible that Obama has played it like a champion athlete, letting the game come to him. That really would give his fans something to cheer about.