No doubt Obama is a different breed of cat. Aspects of his political personality are less vivid than Clinton’s. But he is not overly elusive. His mystery is hiding in plain sight. There is a pattern to his behavior, just as there was with Clinton. Where Clinton was protean, Obama is more slowly evolving. People tend to forget, or underestimate, that he had scant executive experience before becoming president. Behind his veneer of ultra-cool control he was struggling to figure things out. Now, after four years, his presidential identity has started to approach its full shape, which will become clearer from now to 2016.
It took one of the best days of his political career and the worst day of his presidency, in combination, to push his evolution to another stage. These were his reelection on Nov. 6 and the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., 38 days later. His unlikely rise had been shaped by his study of power, beginning with his days as a community organizer in Chicago, and an uncanny ability to avoid traps that would diminish power. The 2012 election, in essence, was his last trap. But the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School forced him to reconsider the moral balance of what he had done, or failed to do, to reach that point.
If Dec. 14, 2012, was, as he said, his most difficult day in the White House, one unspoken aspect of his despair was a sense of deep remorse that, in the service of political survival, in the pursuit of power, in the obsession with avoiding traps, he had given little more than perfunctory attention to the issue of gun control. In word and deed since then, he has shown more passion and resolve. Perhaps the conscience of his late mother kicked in, her idealism finally overtaking his concern that people like her were too naive. Certainly the empathy of a father with young daughters had a transformative effect.
In any case, he comes to this term in a new place as a man and as a politician, not only forged by the experience of his mistakes but also more integrated in character. His will to survive is less likely to contradict his will to do good. That’s likely to be evident in how he handles his larger agenda. This doesn’t mean that he will suddenly become the schmoozer, glad-handing or cajoling, that so many pundits urge him to be; or that he will abandon his tendency to compromise with his opponents, especially on budget cuts, even to the point occasionally of exasperating some supporters; or that he will immediately pursue every progressive issue (immigration reform, yes; climate change, probably not yet). It does not mean that those who demonize him as somehow apart and alien will suddenly see that his story, and his instincts, are quintessentially American. It does not ensure success, let alone greatness.