In four years, presidents age a decade, sometimes two. They turn gray, their faces sag, their voices grow huskier. Whatever mandate they’ve been elected to fulfill, whatever sense of control they felt on that first January morning when the crowd’s hopes carried them down Pennsylvania Avenue, quickly runs up against a cold fact:
The world stops for no president.
We can’t know what travails and triumphs the next four years will send President Obama’s way, but we can be certain that the list won’t be what’s on his docket this Inauguration Day.
In Obama’s first term, revolution swept the world’s most volatile region, the American Dream was redefined, the economy collapsed and gasped its way toward recovery, nature turned destructive to an almost unprecedented degree, and a man murdered a small town’s children. As Obama prepares to shoulder whatever comes next, we look back on 10 trials of one presidential term:
1. Economic Crisis:
The collapse hurt everyone, then things got weird. In the first months after Obama took office, it seemed that the entire nation had been dealt a body blow: Stocks plummeted, foreclosures mounted, factories shuttered, jobs evaporated. But in the following years, even as corporate profits rebounded nicely and stocks proved resilient, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The yawning inequality between the rich and the rest expressed itself in a realigned economy, with most Americans facing suddenly and unhappily lowered expectations. Basements filled with 20-somethings who had neither careers nor clear trajectories, the nation’s birthrate dropped to a record low, Europe’s woes provided a warning about the deeper pain that austerity could bring, and meanwhile, the rich were doing better than they had pre-collapse. Thus do fairness and populism poke their way back into the nation’s politics.
2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
It never even had a name; it was just the war in Iraq. For the war’s entire nine-year history, debate raged over what would constitute a win. The president who started it said this was part of a war that might never end, a war not against a country, but against an idea, an -ism. Obama ran for office promising to end that war and win the one in Afghanistan, another war with no name. When we finally declared the end to the fighting in Iraq, we had neither ended terrorism nor created a vibrant democracy. But had we planted the roots of the Arab Spring? And when the president doubled down on Afghanistan, just as we had in Vietnam, did he do so knowing there would be no victory, just a never-ending rearguard action against something worse? We couldn’t claim to have made life much better for Afghanis, we lost thousands of our own men and women, we spent ourselves into unfathomable debt, and the best we could say is that we maintained a grim status quo.
3. Occupy Wall Street:
American history offers this constant: When times get tough, the frustrated turn back to the principles that got us started. Suddenly, people who had never had much interest in politics were carrying copies of the Constitution, allying themselves with the Founders, revving up their inner Tom Paines. As unemployment soared and foreclosures flourished, the tea party flared, fed by cynicism about Washington and anger aimed at corporate powers. Then came Occupy Wall Street, similarly cynical. Despite their ideological differences, both movements were wonderfully American and almost irrationally optimistic, attracting people who truly believed they could change the system just by making themselves known and clear. Not long after they flared, both began to drift into history. Coming together in frustration is one thing; governing is harder.
4. Gay Marriage:
It was the biggest shift in social attitudes since the civil rights movement, but this change happened without lunch counter sit-ins or shameful images of men in uniforms wielding fire hoses against people asserting their humanity. By the time the president announced what most people had long assumed, that he supported the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, there was no shock. This social revolution occurred not in the public square, but at home, in kitchens and living rooms where family and friends learned that their loved ones loved people of their own sex. It was a revolution of private persuasion, helped along by popular culture, and by the new shape of the American family — single parents, childless couples, people in ever more complex stepfamilies. By the time laws and votes and presidential pronouncements started piling up, the change was pretty much done.
5. Natural Disasters:
The heavens raged. Storms with the names of sirens, Sandy and Irene, altered the coastlines. Quakes ravaged Japan and jostled Washington. Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis — for years, experts on both sides of the global warming debate warned us that weather does not equal climate: Stuff happens, and it’s only the long, long run that makes the case. But although a few big weather events don’t prove that the planet is warming, climate change in the form of warmer sea temperatures is contributing to the strength of the recent megastorms. For now, the insurance industry and government, like 3-year-olds after they’ve knocked down their blocks, gamely pick up the pieces. But like any reasonable toddler, the taxpayer will eventually tire of repeated cleanups. And then?
6. Affordable Care Act:
The history of economic security, from feudalism (bless you for feeding me, lord!) to fraternal organizations (the Masons and Elks take care of their own) to the modern nation-state (poorhouses to pensions), is a story of slow expansion of the minimum we think people need to get by. There have been times when thousands marched on Washington to demand more security. That kind of uprising — and the crushing, nearly universal pain of the Great Depression — brought us Social Security. Three decades later, Lyndon Johnson expanded the definition of security to include health care for the elderly and poor, with Medicare and Medicaid. Half a century after that, Barack Obama — for once able to set his own agenda — asked Americans to see health care as a basic right for all. Like Social Security and Medicare before it, Obamacare — the wholesale acceptance of the term is the best evidence that the program will stick — aroused horrified visions of American socialism. But its provisions proved immediately popular (covering preexisting conditions, keeping young adults on their parents’ policies). As ever with expansions of security, the new minimum is quickly accepted, even if the price continues to sting.
7. Arab Spring:
In a part of the world where long-gone colonial powers drew artificial borders and a few men wielded awesome and autocratic authority, revolution came not with guns or fires, but through videos posted on YouTube and messages sent via Facebook. Dictators fell across North Africa and in the heart of the Arab world: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya. Ordinary people, newly able to see what they were missing out on in other lands, used the newfangled -- social media -- to facilitate the old-fashioned -- people power in public squares. Tyrants were also toppled through traditional means: American power and ingenuity finally got Osama bin Laden, and natural causes claimed Kim Jong Il, but the Arab Spring demonstrated that cellphones trump truncheons and tanks. What next? Technology is a superb disrupter, but taking apart is always a lot easier than building anew.
8. Automotive Bailout:
Almost two years passed between a big bailout that rubbed millions of Americans the wrong way and two moments that provided a patriotic pick-me-up. Wall Street and the banks had received all manner of federal support in their time of need, so when GM and Chrysler — makers of the product most associated with the American Dream — started into the death spiral in 2009, the president saw himself with little choice but to lavish them with billions. Many disagreed, of course, seeing the bailout as a symbol of a society grown soft, a country where failure no longer had consequences. But then, after the automakers’ near-death experience, Chrysler recruited Eminem and Clint Eastwood for 2011 and 2012 Super Bowl ads that would prove far more powerful than any Obama reelection spot. From “a town that’s been to hell and back,” Chrysler made a gut-wrenching, emboldening case for American cars, American jobs and American spirit. “We’re certainly no one’s Emerald City,” the voice of Detroit said. Eminem pointed at us and said: “This is the Motor City — and this is what we do.” A year later, Eastwood captured our anxiety: “We’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.” But “all that matters now is what’s ahead. ... The world’s gonna hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America, and our second half is about to begin.”
9. Apple's iPad:
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, it seemed to be the culmination of his 1983 dream to “put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.” But the tablet computer and advances in smartphone technology offered far more than simplicity and convenience. Ordinary people could now manipulate systems previously controlled by experts. The latest burst of innovation smashed borders and hierarchies, allowing Wikileaks, Anonymous and other hackers to gain power previously reserved to nations and corporations, presidents and CEOs. The new gadgets brought people together digitally but also atomized our lives, making it ever harder for a president to rally the country to his agenda. “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine,” said Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, reacting to his teammate Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide. “But ... it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.”
10. Gun Violence:
Mass shootings are powerfully effective at making parents hug their children tighter. What they don’t do is change the rules on guns. A Batman-batty gunman killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater in Colorado; a schizophrenic college dropout killed six and injured 13, including his congresswoman, at an Arizona shopping center; a psychiatrist who fancied himself a terrorist is charged with killing 13 and injuring 32 on an Army base in Texas — and the political calculus across the ideological spectrum was that the best course of action is to change the subject. There was a time when mass crimes and assassinations and attempts — King, RFK, Reagan — prompted debate about who gets to buy which weapons. But of late, gun control advocates were unable to find traction; gun control opponents could relax. Last month brought Newtown and the murder of 20 first-graders and their teachers. Would politicians merely express sorrow, attend a funeral and wait for the next big story to distract the nation, or would a moral imperative kick in as a president shaped his final term?
Marc Fisher is a Washington Post senior editor. Comment at washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.