7 Nov 2012

Obama: Can the good candidate become a great president?

And so it has ended with a stirring speech, a rain of confetti and two daughters on stage who are almost as tall as their parents.

Four long years. Tonight, for a few minutes, 2008 only felt like yesterday.

The 2012 race started a few days after New Year’s Eve in the frozen flatness of Iowa, when the Republicans began in earnest to find a man who could take on Barack Obama. Eleven months, hundreds of speeches, dozen of trips (to Ohio) and two and a half billion dollars later we have a result that looks remarkably like the status quo.

Barack Obama gets to stay in the White House. The Democrats hold onto the Senate and the Republicans keep the House. Never has continuity cost so much.

Four years ago Obama made history my becoming America’s first black president. Today he has defied it by getting re-elected when the unemployment rate was above 7.5 per cent. That hasn’t happened since World War Two. He did so by cobbling together a coalition of gays, African Americans, Latinos, the young and of course women, who felt that he at least addressed their problems even if he couldn’t always solve them.

As I walked back just now to my hotel in Chicago, in a tired human flow of tens of thousands of people who had come to hear Obama, this coalition was much in evidence. I asked everyone the same question. How does this feel different to four years ago? And they all gave me the same sort of answer.

“It is less giddy, less electrifying, less historic,” a very tall black man with a baritone voice and a fedora hat told me.

“But it is also more serious, more determined.”

There really is less hope and change this time. Instead there is visible exhaustion from the voters, the staffers and the volunteers after a long, bitter and absurdly expensive campaign.

No one I asked had a convincing answer about how to overcome the deep schism in the divided state of America, which was uncannily reflected by the fifty-fifty split in the vote.

In his rousing speech Obama berated the cynics and the pundits who believe the country cannot overcome this chasm. But I have spoken to too many angry Republicans, who couldn’t even fathom defeat and were convinced that Obama was sacrificing Uncle Sam on the altar of socialism, to be optimistic about unity.

The most likable outcome is that the logjam which has already rendered America’s democracy dysfunctional will only get more bogged down. Unless, unless enough Republicans feel that their party has drifted too far to the right and into a blind alley of nostalgia for a white, Protestant, prosperous and supremely powerful America that only exists in the history books.

Self preservation is the most powerful force in politics. Now that the Republicans no longer need to unseat Obama perhaps they can bring themselves to work with them and perhaps he can reach out to bring them on board. It is, to coin a phrase, a known unknown.

So is this: can Obama rise above the pettiness often betrayed by his campaign and think big for a country in need of an extreme make over? Can he, for instance, fight as hard for immigration reform as he fought for his own re-election? Can he work to avoid the fiscal cliff that could plunge the economy straight back into recession? His place in the history is already assured by his last election. This time round – greyer, wiser and liberated by diminished expectations – a good candidate finally has a chance to become a great president.

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