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Nov. 12, 2012/ 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5773
Obama's second chance
More than a half-century ago, after he defeated Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest presidential races of all time, John F. Kennedy was persuaded to fly from his Palm Beach retreat to the vice president's Key Biscayne redoubt as a symbol of national unity. The two men were far closer than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are, but still there was some awkwardness in the gesture, which had been cooked up by former Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and former President Herbert Hoover.
The two, both Navy men who went to Congress in 1946, met amid palm trees and flashing photographers' lights, and perhaps no one noticed then what is so obvious now from the aging footage of the event, that the victor, whose breakthrough came in the first presidential debate earlier that autumn, wore a dark suit and that the vanquished wore a gray suit, tantalizingly like the one that allowed him to fade into the background so disastrously at the WBBM-TV studio in Chicago.
The president-elect began with a question that nagged at his mind, asking his opponent: "How the hell did you carry Ohio?"
Perhaps in a few days Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney will meet, for in truth the nation needs a robust symbol of unity far more in 2012, when the two candidates differed on so much and assembled coalitions that opposed each other with such anger and distrust, than it did in 1960. Kennedy and Nixon were -- despite the folklore that now portrays the contest as a titanic struggle between bitter rivals and competing world views -- more alike than different.
The campaign just completed will be remembered for the struggle for Ohio, but also for its intensity, its nastiness, its price tag. The two combatants fought fiercely. They obscured their own records and distorted their rivals'. Their allies portrayed their opponents as monsters in a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil. In that, as in so much else they said, they were wrong.
Tuesday -- "America's choosing day," in Walt Whitman's characterization of the election of 1884 -- the nation whispered that it wanted to continue on the Obama path but shouted that it wanted to do so with a different pace, in a different tone, with a different result.
Now Mr. Obama is no longer the man of hope and change but a scarred and realistic president whose people gave him a second term and a second chance in the hope he might change.
Now Mr. Obama -- no longer the charmed prophet floating above the political landscape -- has a new beginning. But he will have difficulty claiming a mandate, and the animating question of American politics now is what he will do with his new beginning and what he must do to govern with anything approaching effectiveness.
The heavy turnout, perhaps a result of one of the many unintended consequences of the Citizens United decision, is almost certainly an indication of the urgency and intensity Americans feel about the problems that Mr. Obama didn't tackle or solve in his first chance: Slow economic growth. Stubbornly high unemployment. Terrifying consequences of the imminent fiscal cliff, of the unaddressed entitlement crisis, and of the smoldering crisis that is apparent in every household but reported in almost no news outlet -- insufficient pensions and savings to carry hard-working, middle-class Americans into retirement.
If people were waiting 45 minutes to vote in Richland Township in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and as much as twice as long in parts of Virginia, it very likely is because they have waited for years for politicians to address these problems.
Mr. Obama's victory was muted compared to his 2008 triumph. His supporters will say that this is the natural consequence of both expectations that were deeply unrealistic and of an economic crisis that was alarmingly persistent. But Mr. Obama was elected the first time on the jet stream of optimism, and even his strongest admirers concede privately that Mr. Obama soared as a candidate but stalled as a president.
The American people gave Mr. Obama a new start, but in awarding him a second term they changed the terms of engagement. Not so much four more years, they seemed to say, as four different years.
If the American people felt otherwise, they would have elected Mr. Romney -- or given Mr. Obama a bigger victory. Despite the numbers, this was a grudging victory, delivered by a nation that no longer wants its leaders to hold grudges.
In the last day of his last campaign, Mr. Obama returned to Iowa, where his unlikely rise to power began with an astonishing caucus victory in the winter of 2008, and there he spoke of his "movement for change." Hours later, the voters' verdict indicated that Americans do want change, just as they did in 2008, but also a change in the way the president conducts business. The margin of victory this time, smaller than it was four years ago, is a signal that its chief executive's performance was acceptable, but only barely so.
Two months after that remarkable 1960 meeting in Key Biscayne, newly inaugurated President Kennedy, seemingly awed by the challenges he faced, stood before both houses of Congress and delivered a sobering State of the Union Message.
"We cannot afford to waste idle hours and empty plants while awaiting the end of the recession," the 35th president said. "We must show the world what a free economy can do -- to reduce unemployment, to put unused capacity to work, to spur new productivity, and to foster higher economic growth within a range of sound fiscal policies and relative price stability."
So, too must Barack Obama's America.
Four years ago it seemed as if Mr. Obama had begun a new era of progressivism, fueled by a new generation of Americans who had turned away from conservatism. This morning that seems far less certain.
Four years ago it seemed as if Mr. Obama were asking big questions and positing big answers. This morning, even in the glow of his re-election, he seems the prisoner of those big questions and chary of big answers. The question now is how Mr. Obama, flush with fresh victory but sobered by his challenge, will change, and whether Washington can change with him.
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David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
11/05/12 America's first martyr to free speech
10/29/12 Making hay in Iowa
10/15/12 When two men confronted each other from afar as civilization hung in the balance
10/08/12 If you look at the election a certain way, things don't seem so terrible
10/01/12 Debating the debates
09/24/12 Pessimists R Us
08/20/12 Obama remains a puzzle even as he asks the American people for a second chance
08/13/12 With Ryan, Romney upends the conversation
08/06/12 The real Romney remains hidden behind other people's opinions
07/30/12 What summer is for: How August can matter, and how Romney might use it
07/23/12 The Independent son of independent Maine promises to shake up Washington
07/16/12 The Rambler American
07/09/12 The Telstar revolution: Fifty years ago, a 3-foot orb was sent aloft and spawned a new era in communications
07/02/12 It's got only four electoral votes, but Romney and Obama will be fighting for them
06/25/12 A little noted rebellion over a lonely stretch of land helps tell the American story
06/18/12 You're nothing special: Luck is what you make of it . . . and what it makes of you
06/11/12 Anybody can talk authoritatively about the presidential election. Here's how
06/04/12 Candidates love to ally themselves with admired presidents, in sometimes unexpected ways
05/29/12 Americans aren't in a new burst of patriotism but they are in a new burst of appreciation for the military
05/21/12 Inside out: Almost nothing about this year's presidential election conforms to conventional analysis
05/14/12 Lugar grew into an elder statesman, which is why he'll be leaving the Senate
05/07/12 50 years later, MacArthur's farewell to arms continues to inspire
04/30/12 The likability factor: We're going to find out how important it is in these troubled times
04/23/12 Romney's four battles: With the nomination essentially in hand, he must turn to new challenges
04/16/12 For GOPers, expect the frustration to build, not abate
04/09/12 The political battles you cannot see
04/02/12 Romney's roadmap: Doing better in Democratic states may complicate his fall campaign
03/26/12 Romney struggles with same GOP forces his father faced long ago
03/19/12 The writer and the president
03/12/12 Romney could learn from his rivals after Super Tuesday
03/05/12 The GOP race continues, and Republicans continue to grouse about their choices
02/27/12 The turnout threat: when voters vamoose
02/20/12 The Winter's Tale: Republicans are engaged in a 'problem play,' full of psychological, and real, drama
02/13/12 Which Ike to like?
02/08/12 A tale of two elections: Voters today are making their most profound choice since 1912
01/30/12 Whither the GOP establishment?
01/23/12 The Democratic coalition is breaking up
01/09/12 The verdict that wasn't
01/02/12 These are the keys to who will persist
12/19/11 Another Gingrich rebellion
12/12/11 A defining fight for the GOP
12/05/11 A distinct lack of enthusiasm
11/28/11 For GOPers, the winds are beginning to pick up, the horizon is darkening
11/21/11 Today's polarized politics . . . blame FDR and the political scientists
11/11/11The sporting life
11/07/11 Ron Paul, true believer
10/31/11 Why Cain isn't able
10/10/11 GOP starting over
10/03/11 The Forgotten War of 1812
09/26/11 The way we live now
09/19/11 The crisis this time
09/11/11 But what will it mean?
09/05/11 A horse race column: Who might win the GOP nomination and how it might unfold
08/29/11 The vacuum calls
08/22/11 Passion and politics: How Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got crowded into the same dangerous corner
08/15/11 Eleanor's little village
08/08/11 The agony of August
08/01/11 The politics of the impossible: What a country this might be if the political class served the broad interests of the majority
07/25/11 Pennant fever grips 'Burgh
07/18/11 Exemplar of an era
07/11/11 On summer
07/04/11 The soul of the party
06/27/11 What the Secretary said
06/20/11 Romney has big advantages over his rivals, but they will be coming after him
06/06/11 One question each
05/30/11 The 14-week challenge
05/23/11 Delay tactics
05/16/11 Republicans are waiting
05/09/11 Bin Laden is dead. What does it mean?
05/02/11 From nobodies to nominees
04/25/11 The founders left slavery for future generations to settle, and we still haven't fully come to terms with it
04/18/11 From audacious to cautious
04/11/11 Dreaming of space
12/12/10 The GOP takes control
12/06/10 DECEMBER 7
11/29/10 GOP presidential hopefuls already are lining up local supporters in what is now a red state
11/22/10 Burning down the House
11/15/10 Institutions of higher learning are finally beginning to teach important lifeskills
11/04/10 The war has just begun
11/01/10 Echoes of a speech 40 years ago this week still resonate today
10/25/10 50 years ago America chose between two men who were dramatically different --- and eerily similar
© 2011, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Universal Uclick, as agent for UFS.
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