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Obama running as ‘normal’ political leader now

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.

Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionne@washpost.com.