After an Emotional Finale, Team Obama Fears a Split Decision

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Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

The final day of Barack Obama's career as a campaigner began around 10 a.m. Monday in Madison, Wisconsin, where Bruce Springsteen spoke for all of us when he remarked that it was hard to get fired up so early in the morning. The president then proceeded to Columbus, Ohio, where he was joined by both the Boss and Jay-Z, and finally to Des Moines, Iowa, for an event that was custom-built for high human drama — for uplift, for nostalgia, for the bittersweetness that always comes with the end of something.

Compared with the epic megarallies on the last day of Obama's campaign four years ago, all three events were modest in size, with crowds of 18,000, 15,500, and 20,000 respectively. But there was still something cinematic about the late-night scene in Des Moines's East Village, where the crowd stretched for block after block from the podium up East Grand Street. A massive American flag flew far off in the distance, and further still could be seen the columns of the state's majestic capitol building. Taking the stage to introduce her husband, Michelle Obama, clearly moved, put the finest point possible on the moment: "As you know this is a pretty emotional time for us, because this is the final event of my husband's final campaign," she said. "So this is the last time that he and I will be onstage together at a campaign rally." Soon after which the president jogged out and they shared a kiss, a long embrace, and a few whispered words.

It wasn't just the finality of the event that endowed it with meaning, of course; the setting was equally important, for as Michelle also noted, Iowa was "truly where it all began" for Obama. Earlier in the day, up in Madison, much of the high command of Team Obama milled around backstage, swapping stories with each other and the press, almost all of them about the Hawkeye State. "I remember when he called high school leaders who were organizing for him, and they said, 'Can you call me back, I'm in class right now,' " senior strategist David Axelrod recalled. "There were certain indignities associated with running for president back then."

The truth is that Obama's Iowa operation in 2008 was hardly a shoestring affair. From the start of the campaign, he was a fund-raising machine, and the caucuses were the place where the lion's share of the early money went. And yet, even so, there was plenty of truth to what the other David — that would be Plouffe — said in Madison about the early days of Obama's maiden run: "Nobody really saw how we could put it together" to defeat the purported juggernaut that was Hillary Clinton's operation.

These memories came flooding back for me as Obama began his Des Moines speech, just a few feet away from the building that served as his original Iowa headquarters, an unassuming, low-slung brick building that now houses a church. And apparently, not surprisingly, Obama was experiencing the same thing. "This was where some of the first young people who joined our campaign set up shop, willing to work for little pay and less sleep because they believed that people who love their country can change it," he told the crowd. "When the heat didn't work for the first week or so, some of you brought hats and gloves for the staff. These poor kids, they weren't prepared!"

Obama has always been a politician of unusual emotional restraint, to the point where some believe (though there is no hard evidence for the claim) that he may be a Vulcan. And that restraint has been amplified on the campaign trail this year, as he has mostly, if not entirely, eschewed the soaring (and sometimes too-airy) rhetoric of 2008 in favor of speeches at once more earth-bound and tempered by experience. But from start to finish last night — from those Iowa reminiscences to his revival of the story of Edith Child, the South Carolina volunteer who inspired his campaign's trademark 2008 chant of "Fired up! Ready to go!" — Obama's heart was festooned on his sleeve. More than once, his voice cracked; at least once, a tear or two streamed down his cheek.

For those of us who traveled with Obama both yesterday and on the last day of his campaign four years ago, the unusual combination of the president and the waterworks summoned yet another memory: that of candidate Obama shedding tears (for the first time publicly, to my knowledge) at his penultimate 2008 campaign stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, just after he had learned that his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whom he called Toot, had passed away.

An ocean's-worth of water has passed beneath the bridge since then, much of it turbulent and troubled. Having sought the presidency on a platform whose central plank was post-partisanship, Obama ended up governing through four years that were even more divisive and polarizing than the sixteen that had come before. Much of the blame for this belongs to the Republicans, who adopted a clear and not ineffective strategy of relentless opposition to anything and everything Obama attempted to achieve. But some of the responsibility lay with him — on one view for not pursuing bipartisanship aggressively enough, on another for being so naive to have thought it was feasible at all.

All this year, Obama has argued, or at least postulated, that this fractiousness will come to an end if he wins reelection. "I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we've seen in a generation," he told Rolling Stone last spring. "My hope is that if the American people send a message to [the GOP] ... there's going to be some self-reflection going on — that it might break the fever."

Obama may or may not believe that, but if he does, I suspect we will need to lock him up in Bellevue for suffering from severe delusions. Given the relentless negativity of the campaign we have witnessed from both sides, my guess is that, if Obama does win today, things will be just as ugly, if not uglier, than they've been for the past four years. And that will certainly be the case if one of the potential Armageddon scenarios I laid out recently in the magazine comes to pass: an Obama victory in the Electoral College but a win by Mitt Romney in the popular vote.

Please do not dismiss the possibility, because for all the confidence that Team Obama has right now about getting to 270, they are palpably nervous that Romney might still emerge with a higher national raw vote total than their guy does. This is not just a matter of the tightness of all the credible national polls; it goes to the difference between now and 2008 in the non-battleground states. As Plouffe pointed out to me yesterday, Obama's popular-vote margin last time was inflated by the organic enthusiasm for him in deep-blue states where the campaign spent no money on advertising or organizing. This time, however, that enthusiasm does not exist to anything like the same degree, and so Obama's margins in places like New York and California will be pushed down — even as the organic anti-Obama fervor in deep-red states will be greater than it was in 2008, depressing his popular-vote performance even more.

If the EV/PV split does occur, Obama's people fret that it will be terrible for the country and will make it much harder for the president to govern effectively. And this fear seems to me well-founded: In light of the rejectionist tendency regarding Obama's legitimacy that already exists on the right — together with its lunatic voter fraud paranoia — it is hard to imagine the fever-swamp hatred of him not being exacerbated by such an outcome.

There is, to be sure, an even more nightmarish possibility from the Democratic point of view: Despite all the polling and other evidence that suggests he is on track to win, Obama could simply lose outright. Beyond the political and policy implications for the country, how bitter this pill would be for Obama is impossible to overstate. More than he almost ever lets on, the president wears the mantle of history heavily on his shoulders. And he knows that, if he is defeated, a narrative will arise that recasts him in the minds of many from a seminal figure to a pedestrian one, and that renders his presidency a failed, one-term accident.

It is difficult to quarrel with the observation that there are few if any presidents in our history who lasted just four years in office for whom greatness can plausibly be claimed. But it is also impossible, at least for me, not to note that Obama, in getting elected at all, achieved something profound and lasting. His record in office includes accomplishments — the staving off of a second Great Depression, the passage of a near-universal health-care law — of enormous heft and consequence. If in a few hours, he is able to stand onstage in Chicago and claim victory, he will have a chance to put even bigger numbers on the scoreboard and perhaps place himself in the ranks of our most successful presidents. And if he loses, he will have done so fighting the good fight. Four years ago, on that night in Charlotte when Obama cried over the loss of his grandmother, I wrote in this space, "Whatever happens tomorrow, Toot, ya done good." Four years later, that verdict still holds water.