If a US presidential election has the potential to wear down foreign observers, let alone the American public, imagine what it must do to the candidates. The challenger must spend years campaigning for the endorsement of their own party — fighting rebellions and pandering to diehards — while the incumbent has to work equally hard just to keep in play, while also keeping up the presidential day-job.
Perhaps the effects this can have only really sunk in for the President’s supporters as they watched the first debate. His friends have for a while recounted tales of a Commander-in-Chief increasingly disengaged, mooching around the White House as the limitations of the world’s most powerful office sink in. But most of his supporters only became aware of this as they watched their candidate listlessly stumble across what should have been familiar terrain. Who was this man? Surely not the one who had promised to stop the oceans? Or the same person who once promised that ‘we’ were the ones we’ve all been waiting for?
If the 2008 presidential race saw Obama sail into office on the audacious wind of hope and change, his 2012 effort appeared to have floundered on the first sandbank of reality. To some extent, and as reaction to the second presidential debate has shown, this is in part the narrative decided by the US media, including the ‘new’ media. All is hype. But the supporters of Obama once ran on this fuel. The 2008 election was entirely about such intangibles: optimism, hope, charisma. This race, however, is about facts — and the intangibles turn out to be little use when the realities of deficits, borrowing and unemployment have landed.
Even after his second-debate rally, the situation can be judged by the continuing closeness of the race. It should be remembered that Mitt Romney is a candidate almost nobody had as first choice for the Republican ticket, let alone the presidency. The race is not close because of Romney’s charisma. But in a Republican field dominated by an array of unusually unelectable candidates, Romney appeared to be not just the only safe pair of hands, but the only comparatively normal set.
Obama, for his part, is like a Monet. From a distance it all looks unbelievably wonderful. But the closer you get, the messier it turns out to be. Brits and Europeans would elect Obama because they stand at a distance: they get the coolness, the non-Bushness, the ‘aw-shucks’, carefully timed humility. American voters, however, are forced to see the detail.
And not only see it, but feel it. They have seen unemployment rise under a President who promised it would fall. They have felt the results of a budget deficit which Obama promised to halve but has failed to reduce at all. And they have seen and felt the effects of an economic plan based on borrowing ever-larger sums from China in order to sustain the US’s global position.
Now even Obama’s oratory, which once kept his supporters aloft, seems to have run out of gas. And without the hype, without the audacity, what is there? It is no surprise that commentators like those cited by Harold Evans responded so emotionally to Obama’s poor debate performance. For these pundits, the showiness of the President long ago replaced reality. For them, jobless figures, budget deficits and government debt are debating points — figures to be derided, massaged or otherwise hoped out of existence. But the facts are there and cannot be willed away.
What once looked like an easy re-run for Obama now looks set to go at the very least to a close-run finish. Even if he is re-elected — which most American bookmakers still expect — his dire performance, both in office and this campaign, will greatly assist the Republicans in the elections for the House and Senate. The presidential race itself may well come down to a photo-finish in Ohio. But even if Obama wins there, and limps back to the White House, he will begin his second term a much-diminished figure. For the American public whose ambitions he once spoke to, this will prove — like the Clinton years — a bitter reminder of the distance between rhetoric and reality.
Whether he returns to the White House or not, Obama looks set to teach the American public one lesson he may have wished to keep from them: the disillusioning consequences of voting for hype over experience.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012