Some Obama fans think it’s tactical genius that’s holding him back—his fabled long ball. Americans are no longer as angry as they were in January 2009 so much as they are defeated, depressed, and jaded by the slow recovery and by four decades of raging inequality that tells them the deck is stacked no matter who’s in Washington. Better, then, not to ruffle these still waters—or those easily rattled independents fetishized by political consultants—and instead scare seniors about imminent Medicare cutbacks and plot deep-think policy initiatives that (like health-care reform) might fix America over time. But the voters’ placidity hardly augurs well for Democratic turnout in 2012. And it may not last. All that’s required is one more economic panic to shatter the phony peace and whip the rage back to center stage, once again to the right’s advantage.
“A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous,” Obama declared at his inauguration. What he said on that bright January morning is no less true or stirring now. For all his failings since, he is the only one who can make this case. There’s nothing but his own passivity to stop him from doing so—and from shaking up the administration team that, well beyond the halfway-out-the-door Geithner and his Treasury Department, has showered too many favors on the prosperous. This will mean turning on his own cadre of the liberal elite. But it’s essential if he is to call the bluff of a fake man-of-the-people like Romney. To differentiate himself from the discredited Establishment, he will have to mount the fight he has ducked for the past three years.
The alternative is a failure of historic proportions. Those who gamed the economy to near devastation—so much so that the nation turned to an untried young leader in desperation and in hope—would once again inherit the Earth. Unless and until there’s a purging of the crimes that brought our president to his unlikely Inauguration Day, much more in America than the second term of his administration will be at stake.