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Obama Lost, Obama Found

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The economy and the budget aren’t the only matters on which Obama is likely to wind up crosswise with the left. In his speech to the nation on December 1, the president is all but certain to announce the deployment of around 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Already, Congressman David Obey and Senator Carl Levin, both powerful committee chairmen and staunch opponents of escalating America’s role in the conflict, are threatening to put forward a “war surtax” to pay for the additional forces—i.e., attempt to kill the plan by wielding the power of the purse. One Democratic congressman predicts that fully half of his caucus will oppose the escalation. “Obama is going to get his ass kicked on this,” the congressman says.

And then there is health care. Assuming that the Senate passes its bill, Obama will likely be compelled to step in and place his cards on the table when a conference committee attempts to meld it with the legislation passed by the House. By all indications, he is ready to abandon the public option (or accept a triggerized incarnation so watered down it barely merits the name) and make other compromises that threaten to enrage, or at least depress to the point of contemplating seppuku, the Democratic base.

What’s ominous about the prospect of enthusiasm for Obama’s faltering on the left is that the president has already lost so much ground with the center. The national polling averages compiled by Pollster.com show that his numbers among independent voters are upside down, with 45 percent disapproving of the job he is doing and 44 percent approving. “He’s stuck, and it’s kind of ironic,” says Castellanos. “Obama has tried so hard not to be George Bush and Bill Clinton, and yet he is becoming exactly that. The guy who ran against ideological division has brought it back with such a vengeance that he’s lost the middle, but not sufficiently to make his base happy. He’s got no friends.”

But the creeping disappointment in Obama is rooted in something deeper and more inchoate than his stances on the issues or his legislative strategies. It has to do with his inevitable and inexorable demystification—his transformation from a fantasy superman into something more ordinary. “The United States, with its powers of marketplace imagination and corresponding historical amnesia, is tremendously good at turning yesterday’s extraordinary change into tomorrow’s quotidian commodity for sale,” observes a Democratic activist ruefully. “Which is what I fear is happening to Obama: He’s pretty much becoming another president, a picture on a coffee mug.”

Obama has done his share to contribute to what Max Weber might have called the routinization of his own charisma. For much of the past ten months, the outside-shot candidate has been the inside-game president, consumed with dickering with Congress and deliberating with his team, spending more time appealing to various Beltway constituencies than to us. His oft-noted omnipresence in the media has done little to connect him more viscerally to the electorate. Astonishingly, this inspiring, eloquent, and persuasive man has often seemed an arid and distant figure.

All of which is why the next hundred days, despite or perhaps because of the difficulties they will present, offer Obama an ideal chance to reclaim his lost mojo. Accomplishing this will require a marked shift in métier. Less detachment and more engagement. Less deference and more defiance. Less diffusion and more focus. Less pragmatism and more principle. Less conciliation and more cannon fire.

What’s required most of all from Obama at this moment, however, is clarity. There will be no avoiding unhappiness in many quarters about his decision when it comes to Afghanistan. There is no answer to the deficit-unemployment conundrum that will satisfy everyone. But the process of making unpopular choices will help turn Obama from a passive to an active president. The challenge for him—and what he does so well when he is so moved—will be to explain those choices, to educate the electorate, to speak to us as adults. To lay out what he believes and why, along with a vision of the future to which he wants to shepherd the country. As Simon Rosenberg, the head of the progressive advocacy group NDN, puts it, “He needs to say, day after day, ‘This is where we’re going. We can differ on the tactics on how to get there, but four years from now, eight years from now, this is where we’re going to be. Come with me. I’m going to lead you there.’”

Easier advised than done, you might say, and you would be right. But Obama has always been at his best when the stakes were highest, the risks greatest, the 24-second clock dwindling perilously close to zero. In his race for the White House, he met every moment of maximum peril—from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright furor to the financial crisis—in the same way: He seized control of his campaign, raised his own game, and calmly drained a three-pointer. And that is exactly what he needs to do now with his presidency. As a wise man once observed in another context, the time for change has come.


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