Hard-won gains make for wiser president
Barack Obama:Barack Obama has aged visibly in the four years since he, Michelle, Malia and Sasha strode on to the stage in Grant Park to claim victory on election night, before an ecstatic crowd that viewed him as a kind of messiah.
Through his compelling autobiography and on the path to the White House, Obama transformed his own story into the stuff of popular legend: Stanley Ann Dunham, the idealistic but naive mother whose death from ovarian cancer became an argument for healthcare reform; Barack Hussein Obama snr, the intelligent but self-destructive and absent father from Kenya; “Toot” and “Gramps”, the all-American maternal grandparents who raised Obama in Hawaii.
It’s often said that Obama and Mitt Romney have a great deal in common. Both are extremely competitive, sometimes aloof millionaires with degrees from Harvard Law School. But to assert, as the financier George Soros did last January, that there would be little difference between Obama and Romney presidencies is to ignore the profoundly different backgrounds, visions and characters of the two men.
Romney has always been a conformist and defender of the status quo. Despite the obstacles that confounded him in his first term, Obama remains a seeker of social justice and a reformer at heart.
As a black boy raised by white people, Obama went through a fundamental crisis of identity, which he resolved in the 1980s by finding his African family and “going black” as a community organiser on the south side of Chicago. He left the southside for Harvard in 1987 because he thought law school “would help me bring about real change . . . I would learn power’s currency” and bring it “back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire”.
His drive for near universal healthcare, culminating in the signature of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, was proof of his abiding concern for the poor and middle classes, but it was unfairly portrayed as a “government takeover” and channelled sometimes racially motivated hatred into resistance bordering on sedition.
Far from confirming Obama as a “European socialist”, the manner of healthcare reform proved his penchant for negotiating with himself to arrive at a compromise. To the chagrin of his liberal supporters, Obama abandoned the principle of a single government payer and struck a deal with the big pharmaceutical companies.
He followed a similar pattern when he enraged Wall Street by referring to “fat cat bankers”, but then disappointing much of America by failing to enact hard-hitting reforms or punish those responsible for the crisis.
Obama repeated constantly that America must be a country of equal opportunity. He wants to restore the basic bargain at the root of past prosperity: that if you work hard, you can buy a house, send the kids to college and retire with dignity.
The Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell famously said his number one priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Despite systematic Republican obstruction, Obama has achieved a great deal. He prevented the US from sinking into a second Great Depression with a stimulus Bill economists say created three million jobs; saved the automobile industry; passed healthcare reform; ordered the death of Osama bin Laden; ended the Iraq war; and devised an exit plan for Afghanistan.
Obama has grown in office. When the BP oil spill dumped millions of barrels of petrol into the Gulf in 2010, Obama’s apparent detachment was criticised. A poll yesterday showed 67 per cent of Americans approve of his management of Hurricane Sandy. If he wins today, the Republicans’ fear is the Democrats’ hope: that in a second term Obama will prove to be the brave, daring visionary we glimpsed sporadically over the past four years.