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VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE: Four years down the road, Obama’s plea for change sounds more like an accusation
WHEN an embattled Barack Obama left the stage last Thursday night, one thing had become abundantly clear, that Washington DC is the place where dreams go to die. Worn and weary after four long years in the White House, visibly thinner than he was four years ago, and ever so slightly greyer, the president choked out his final plea to the American voter.
Now Obama is no slouch when it comes to allocution. And this time was no different. He spoke with his usual swagger. He was winning. He was affable. He was on message and on point. He reminded his audience that the path to an American recovery would not be quick or easy. He rolled out all his greatest hits, from raising the standards of teaching and learning to finally getting Osama bin Laden. He left no doubt, that when all is said and done, when Americans pick up that ballot to vote, they "will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation".
Yet, in the grand tradition of speeches by Barack Obama -- and it has indeed been a grand tradition -- this one still came up a little short, rating a mere six out of a possible 10. It wasn't due to the delivery. It wasn't because of the content. It was, instead, a victim of circumstance.
Because four years on comes the great disillusionment. Which isn't entirely unexpected. What more after riding into the capital on a wave of goodwill, buoyed by the promise of hope and change, only to be stymied at every turn by an opposition that hasn't been this vicious or vindictive since the Clinton administration. What more after realising that the gridlock that is government isn't easily undone, neither by rousing rhetoric, nor with common sense.
Last Thursday, Obama spoke like a man fighting back his disenchantment. "So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens -- you were the change."
You are the change. You are the reason. Don't turn away now. Only it was different when he said these same words four years ago. Back then, there was still an air of expectation about them.
Last Thursday, it sounded more like an accusation. You are the reason we're stuck with John Boehner. You are the reason behind every legislative roadblock. You and your infinite wisdom in embracing the sheer daftness of picking the executive branch from one party and the legislative branch from another.
Last Thursday, Obama spoke like a man on the precipice. Like Prince Richard in The Lion in Winter, promising not to give Henry the satisfaction of hearing him beg. "My you chivalric fool," said Prince Geoffrey. "As if the way one fell down mattered." To which Richard the Lionheart replied: "When the fall is all there is, it matters."
Because Obama is living the horrible middle of every Frank Capra movie. It is the tail-end of the second act in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, when it dawns upon Jefferson Smith that he is about to be yet another victim of the great political machine. It is that moment in State of the Union, when Grant Matthews succumbs to special interests. It is George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life feeling he was "worth more dead than alive".
Unfortunately, Barack Obama did not have his Mr Smith moment. He did not rise up, his voice hoarse, and give us a moment of unadulterated idealism. He did not channel that fictional junior senator and ask us to just get up off the ground. "Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty.
Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, colour or creed."
Unfortunately for Obama, it doesn't look like there will be a Capra-esque third act. Because there are no happy endings in Washington politics and it is unlikely that he will, like Jefferson Smith, like Grant Matthews, like George Bailey, be rewarded for sticking to his ideals.
Obama will win a second term, if only because Mitt Romney is doomed to be the John Kerry of American presidential politics: little more than a fancy hairdo. Obama will win a second term, but if he isn't careful, he runs the risk of becoming a lame duck.