Obama didn't change. We did.

President Obama's coolness under pressure, seen as an asset during the 2008 campaign, is now viewed by many as a fault.
President Obama's coolness under pressure, seen as an asset during the 2008 campaign, is now viewed by many as a fault. (Jewel Samad)
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By Jon Meacham
Sunday, November 7, 2010

For much of the 2008 election cycle, I did not think Barack Obama would win the presidency. (A Whole Foods-shopping law professor from Chicago's Hyde Park with "Hussein" as a middle name? Please.) Then came the crash and Katie Couric's interviews with Sarah Palin, and before long Obama was standing in Grant Park, a figure of history.

When I look back on it, it strikes me that the one factor in the Obama presidential equation that has never changed is Obama himself. Reality happens all around him - wars, recession, oil spills, midterms - yet he seems placid, even unmovable.

Now the political world, once in love, wants Obama to change right now. Doesn't he know he's been repudiated? Won't he get it at last, put away his Mao suit and turn his back on his socialist past?

In the days following the midterms, the president played his post-election role in this familiar Washington drama, duly calling the defeat a "shellacking" (his version of George W. Bush's 2006 "thumpin' ") and inviting everybody over for dinner.

But I would not hold out for a fundamentally New Obama. For better or for worse, Obama is today - and will be tomorrow - what he has always been: a bright man engaged in an endeavor that rewards luck and happenstance more often than it does intellect and good intentions. He's had his share of bad luck, and his notable inability to convince the country that he is leading a comprehensive economic turnaround is one of the most significant leadership failures in the modern history of the presidency. Still, the White House's tactical mistakes do not excuse the rest of us for ignoring our own history, a history that helps us gain perspective on the president's problems.

Obama himself has such a perspective. A president who understands that life will never completely conform to our wishes - that the world will disappoint us again and again, yet we have a duty to press on and make the best of things - is a president particularly well equipped to endure calls for a "reset" or a "move to the center," as though he has been dabbling in Marxism as corporate profits continue rising.

Extraordinary leaders tend to seem ordinary in real time. Thomas Jefferson left office disappointed and defeated by the threat of war with Britain. Abraham Lincoln expected to lose the 1864 election. Franklin Roosevelt divided the nation between those who loved him and those who could not speak his name (to the latter group, he was "that man"). Ronald Reagan risked impeachment in his now-fabled second term.

Each of these men was great in his way, and their kind of political greatness is enhanced, not undercut, by the fact that they lost many a fight along the way to history's pantheon. We cannot know whether Obama will one day join them. But we do know that the verdict on this president, as with virtually all presidents, will be endlessly revisited and revised. Last Tuesday did not mark the end, in reality or in metaphor, of this presidency.

In politics, what distinguishes genius from folly, masterstrokes from blunders? Winning. The planning, time, care and fervor of the mission can be precisely the same for a leader when the result is cataclysm as when it is victory. What one hopes is that the leader learns from the former in order to increase the likelihood of the latter.

I have long been skeptical of politicians' complaints about process and the press. (George Washington was the first president to complain about the pettiness of the media of the day.) Self-pity at the highest levels is as inevitable as it is debilitating.

There is, however, one mitigating factor in the Obama administration's indictment of "the culture of Washington." There is now a gap between the politically active and the politically dependent - that is, between obsessives who have a stake in the nature of political debate and those ordinary people who have a stake in the outcome of political debate. From cable television to the Internet, we are now living with a political class which has a financial and cultural interest in conflict rather than in governing. The result: Every incremental development is invested with apocalyptic significance.

Amid that constant churn, Obama has always managed to appear detached and clinical. That seemed a virtue during the campaign, in the madness and fear of the economic collapse. Now it seems a vice to those who expected a human figure to perform superhuman feats.

Obama is not surprised that the kingdom of heaven has failed to arrive in his first two years. A more historically minded country would not be, either.

Jon Meacham is the author of "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," which was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

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