Barack Obama had, and still has, the ability to be a transcendent president.
The trick is to take that soaring rhetoric out for a spin once the microphones have been unplugged and the teleprompters turned off for the night.
The problem is, halfway through the Obama presidency, he has yet to really govern.
Instead, even while term-limited, Mr. Obama seems poised to campaign instead.
His campaign apparatus is being converted to an ongoing advocacy organization to publicly press his second-term agenda – an unprecedented move that could forever change the office of president, and not for the better, while further institutionalizing partisan sniping in Washington.
Even all that might be livable – if the president were to also turn to governing. But there are no signs he will.
Governing, in the American system of governance, means working with even those whom you oppose, to compromise for the greater good. But since the November election, Mr. Obama has appeared as hyperpartisan as ever – and recently declared to his enemies in the Republican House that he would not negotiate the raising of the nation’s debt ceiling.
The president must be careful not to exaggerate the extent of his electoral mandate; he didn’t win by that much, and opposition to him is still broad and firm. If he attempts to act from an authoritarian impulse, as is his wont, his second term is sure to be less of a success than his first, and perhaps historically so.
It’s become legendary in Washington that this president doesn’t engage even those in his own party. Even Democrats in Congress are rarely consulted.
Why would a president put together a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to press his agenda, but hardly ever pick up a phone to sell his ideas to Congress?
President Reagan, whose electoral mandate was inarguably greater than Mr. Obama’s, perfected the art of going over the heads of Congress to the people. But, it’s important to note, he did it only after first trying to convince lawmakers of his case. Going to the people was a last resort for Reagan; for Obama, it seems to be the only approach.
Looking at the economic numbers, future generations will have a hard time believing Mr. Obama was re-elected. Unemployment and poverty are up, as are taxes and regulations.
Yet with his personal popularity, the president still has a chance to govern – to move the country forward, leading where possible and compromising where necessary. But he will have to be a different president in his second term. He will need to, uncharacteristically, leave the demonizing and demagoguery on the campaign trail and decide to work with Republicans.
Yes, they believe very different things – but with the media against them and having lost ground in the November election, Republicans have incentives to work with the president too. House Speaker John Boehner has tried, and made it clear he would do so immediately after the election.
We don’t understand why a recent news report had to make reference to the best way for Republicans “to pressure President Obama for more budget cuts.” With the national debt over $16 trillion, and a trillion-plus being added to it every year, why would a president have to be pressured to trim spending? It just doesn’t make sense.
He talks hopefully of future generations while continuing to spend their money.
Some believe the president simply wants to press his advantage and do whatever he can to further marginalize Republicans. Some even say he should: CBS News political director John Dickerson wrote recently that Obama “must declare war on the Republican Party.”
Pray such people are wrong, and that the president is willing to put aside partisan differences to do what’s best for the country.
That would, by extension, be what’s best for his second term and his legacy.