Opinion: Will Obama now lead the charge?

November 12, 2012


More than a half century ago, after he defeated Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest presidential races of all time, John F. Kennedy was persuaded to fly from his Palm Beach retreat to the vice president’s Key Biscayne redoubt as a symbol of national unity. The two men were far closer than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are, but still there was some awkwardness in the gesture, which had been cooked up by former Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and former President Herbert Hoover.

The two, both Navy men who went to Congress in 1946, met amid palm trees and flashing photographers’ lights, and perhaps no one noticed then what is so obvious now from the aging footage of the event, that the victor, whose breakthrough came in the first presidential debate earlier that autumn, wore a dark suit and that the vanquished wore a gray suit, tantalizingly like the one that allowed him to fade into the background so disastrously at the WBBM-TV studio in Chicago.

The president-elect began with a question that nagged at his mind, asking his opponent: “How the hell did you carry Ohio?”

Perhaps in a few days Obama and Romney will meet, for in truth the nation needs a robust symbol of unity far more in 2012, when the two candidates differed on so much and assembled coalitions that opposed each other with such anger and distrust, than it did in 1960. Kennedy and Nixon were — despite the folklore that now portrays the contest as a titanic struggle between bitter rivals and competing worldviews — more alike than different.

The campaign just completed will be remembered for the struggle for Ohio, but also for its intensity, its nastiness, its price tag. The two combatants fought fiercely. They obscured their own records and distorted their rivals’. Their allies portrayed their opponents as monsters in a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil. In that, as in so much else they said, they were wrong.

Tuesday — “America’s choosing day,” in Walt Whitman’s characterization of the election of 1884 — the nation whispered that it wanted to continue on the Obama path, but shouted that it wanted to do so with a different pace, in a different tone, with a different result.

Now Obama is no longer the man of hope and change, but a scarred and realistic president whose people gave him a second term and a second chance in the hope he might change.

Now Obama — no longer the charmed prophet floating above the political landscape — has a new beginning. But he will have difficulty claiming a mandate, and the animating question of American politics now is what he will do with his new beginning and what he must do to govern with anything approaching effectiveness.

The heavy turnout, perhaps a result of one of the many unintended consequences of the Citizens United decision, is almost certainly an indication of the urgency and intensity Americans feel about the problems that Obama didn’t tackle or solve in his first chance: Slow economic growth. Stubbornly high unemployment. Terrifying consequences of the imminent fiscal cliff, of the unaddressed entitlement crisis, and of the smoldering danger that is apparent in every household but reported in almost no news outlet — insufficient pensions and savings to carry hard-working, middle-class Americans into retirement.

If people were waiting 45 minutes to vote in Richland Township in southwestern Pennsylvania, and as much as twice as long in parts of Virginia, it very likely is because they have waited for years for politicians to address these problems.

Obama’s victory was muted compared with his 2008 triumph.

The American people gave Obama a new start, but in awarding him a second term, they changed the terms of engagement. Not so much four more years, they seemed to say, as four different years.

In the last day of his last campaign, Obama returned to Iowa, where his unlikely rise to power began with an astonishing caucus victory in the winter of 2008, and there he spoke of his “movement for change.” Hours later, the voters’ verdict indicated that Americans do want change, just as they did in 2008, but also a change in the way the president conducts business. The margin of victory this time, smaller than it was four years ago, is a signal that its chief executive’s performance was acceptable, but only barely so.

Two months after that remarkable 1960 meeting in Key Biscayne, newly inaugurated President Kennedy, seemingly awed by the challenges he faced, stood before both houses of Congress and delivered a sobering State of the Union message.

“We cannot afford to waste idle hours and empty plants while awaiting the end of the recession,” the 35th president said. “We must show the world what a free economy can do — to reduce unemployment, to put unused capacity to work, to spur new productivity, and to foster higher economic growth within a range of sound fiscal policies and relative price stability.”

So, too must Barack Obama’s America.

Four years ago it seemed as if Obama had begun a new era of progressivism, fueled by a new generation of Americans who had turned away from conservatism. This morning that seems far less certain.

Four years ago it seemed as if Obama were asking big questions and positing big answers. This morning, even in the glow of his re-election, he seems the prisoner of those big questions and chary of big answers. The question now is how Obama, flush with fresh victory but sobered by his challenge, will change, and whether Washington can change with him.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


In_God_we_trust 1 year, 5 months ago

It looks like the corruption is starting to flow like a river out from the Obama administration now that the election is over. Nice of him to hide the corruption from the voters and mislead them till after the election.


Agnostick 1 year, 5 months ago

I can't say I'm surprised by all the sputtering of the Disappointed Pseudoconservatives, crying their bitter tears of salt and vinegar. (Heck, one such nimrod has been away from for almost an entire week, despite averaging 5-10 screeds a day during the past three years!)

But really... more power to 'em! The same Constitution that laid out the rules for the election they're crying about... also gives them the right to air their grievances. And to their credit, so far, they've done so peacefully, and legally.

That same Constitution, incidentally, also gives me the right to call 'em what they are: Crybabies.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 5 months ago

Unfortunately, what past history indicates is that what Obama has in mind is to screw the middle and working class, while, despite his campaign rhetoric, demanding very little from corporations and the "1%" in reducing the deficit.

The Grand Bargain is a Grand Lie Why the scheme being negotiated in Washington is one-sided and totally unfair

by Cenk Uygur


Agnostick 1 year, 5 months ago

President Obama will lead the charge for those people that still believe in The Constitution. The crybabies are choosing to go start their own little island.


Saoul 1 year, 5 months ago

Obama has the chance of a lifetime to progressively take your money.

How Would the Fiscal Cliff Affect Typical Families in Each State?

To illustrate the potential impact on typical families, we have used Census and IRS data to estimate income and deductions for the median two-child family in each of the fifty states.


In_God_we_trust 1 year, 5 months ago

Apparently not everyone is happy about the great Democratic election. Even some "Obama" states are not too happy.


KEITHMILES05 1 year, 5 months ago

The BIG questions is whether the GOP will obstruct at every turn when Obama is leading. They did this the past four years and were very proud of it. Hence, another reason they were seen as nothing more than whiners.


beatrice 1 year, 5 months ago

I want to thank all the Sheldon Andersons and other 1%ers out there who gave millions and millions to Mitt Romney's failed campaign. They showed through their spending that they clearly can afford for the TEMPORARY Bush tax cuts on top incomes to be just that, temporary.


haventapot 1 year, 5 months ago

It's very, very simple. If you want other people's money, you voted for Obama. If you give a large portion or your money to others, you did not vote for Obama. Obama is no leader, let's be clear on that fact.


yourworstnightmare 1 year, 5 months ago

Disappointed Regressives will criticize Obama at every turn no matter what. It will be important for Obama to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to criticism from the right.


Liberty275 1 year, 5 months ago

It's hard to lead a charge when the teleprompter keeps slippng off your horse.


grammaddy 1 year, 5 months ago

"Obama's victory was muted compared with his 2008 triumph." How so? 200,000 MORE black folks showed up for his re-election than did for his first election.


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