The Audacity of an Early Victory

I remember watching the Democratic Party national convention in 2004. While Canadian and focused on the politics of my own country, I am always interested in the politics of our great neighbour to the south. Politically, I could best be described as a pragmatist, believing it unlikely that one party has the complete, correct answer.

I remember watching the keynote address of Barack Obama on July 27, 2004. After listening to what sounded like the same speech by every politician and hack the party could bring to the podium, here was someone who could orate. He talked about his background and his struggles. He repeated a theme of “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.”

As I listened, I said to myself, “This man sounds like a President. He sounds more like a President than the candidate.” I was not the only one. Many people and pundits were impressed by Obama. The buzz was palpable.

I thought that Obama would be a great candidate in 2012 or 2016. He obviously had the oratory and communication skills. I thought that over the next 8-10 years, he would develop the record of success and the network needed to lever his intelligence, charisma and communication skills to the level needed to achieve a successful presidency.

I admit, I was surprised when I heard that Obama was running in 2008. It scared me a bit. I looked at the other candidates and quickly realized that he could win. Hilary was skilled but unlikable. The main experience she brought to the table was being First Lady. Most do not consider that a training position for the big seat.

The Republicans were also not impressive. Coming off a horrific presidency, it was difficult to see any path to victory. Whichever of Romney, McCain, Huckabee or Guilliani might win the nomination, achieving victory would be almost impossible.

It seemed obvious to anyone with eyes that Obama could be elected President. Only the pundits, talking heads and windbags refused to see, as they get paid to keep the election looking like a close horse race. Through a staggering confluence of events (Bush, collapsing economy, Bush, Hillary, Bush, two wars, etc) the winner of the Democratic nomination would be President. Even more striking, the Democrats assumed that a former First Lady and Senator was the presumptive nominee. They were the only ones.

Long story short, the path to the presidency for Obama became clear. His people saw the opportunity and grabbed for it, assuming that this intelligent charismatic could do the job. They built a mystique about him. Historic first black president. Change agent. Above the fray of partisan politics. It was not unusual to hear his proponents talking with fervor, as if the sun would shine again on the moment of inauguration.

Who can be surprised that President Obama could not meet the expectations heaped upon him? As intelligent and charming as he is, he entered the White House with almost messianic expectations. Obama will enter the White House, thought the followers, and all will magically be well. What a horrible foundation on which to build.

The saviour of liberalism and the democratic party, Obama was an extraordinary campaigner. Intelligent, disciplined and handsome. However, as appealing as he looked to regular people, he still does not have the network he needs. We have seen this repeatedly, as he has been pushed around on healthcare, Afganistan, Israel and other issues of the day. Perhaps he does not know where enough of the bodies are buried.

Seemingly prizing bipartisanship over action, Obama has angered parts of his own party who want to use their rare majority to drive through what they consider their mandate. Blue Dogs don’t know Obama. They run from him because they cannot see how he can provide them cover from their constituents should they vote with their president. The coattails seem to be increasingly frayed.

I hope that this man can find a new part of himself, the part that cares less about re-election in 2012 and more about what he believes. The greatest leaders do what they believe needs be done. The greatest politicians only do what gets them to the next election. Obama has the potential to be a great leader.