“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” You have to hand it to Joe Biden; the vice-president produced one of the White House’s best soundbites about Barack Obama’s first term as he kicked off the reelection campaign early this year. But that succinct tribute, and the longer tallies of achievements that followed, have failed to check the rising chorus of attacks from the president’s one-time supporters. Many who voted Democrat in 2008 now accuse their former hero of diffidence and lack of vision. Their wavering support—or even outright opposition—is Obama’s greatest threat in November.
It’s been a long four years, since those crying, cheering, disbelieving crowds greeted Obama as the first black president of the United States. America, like many other “rich” nations, has struggled to shake off recession and hold its place in the world. Those who never liked Obama now hate him, invoking all kinds of episodes from the first term to call him a communist, while the claim that he is not actually an American citizen, once comic for its stubbornness in denying documentary evidence, now seems the settled view of a significant number of Republican voters.
What is new is the venom towards Obama, or at least, a kind of aggressive dismay, voiced in publications whose editorials were rapturous at his election. David Brooks in the New York Times accused him of being merely reactive, and of failing to say what he would do with a second term. “The magic is gone,” pronounced Ross Douthat in the same pages, accusing the president of addressing the Democrat convention with “a plodding, hectoring speech that tacitly acknowledged that this White House is out of ideas, out of options and no longer the master of its fate.” The Washington Post rated Bill Clinton’s convention performance more highly.
They have a point—certainly about the convention. Obama, on the stage, looked like an academic, not a leader: suit too capacious for his narrow body, gesturing with fingers and thumb pinched together like someone deconstructing a thesis, not exhorting a nation to summon yet more effort to overcome a shared ordeal. He has the intensity and the voice for big speeches, but not the words (and his speechwriting team has hardly helped him override his native caution). Bill Clinton easily outclassed Obama; big-shouldered, expansive, talking of hope, the former president…