It was February 2007. By happenstance, I found myself in Barack Obama’s Senate office in Springfield, Illinois. A couple of days later, in front of that very building, Obama officially announced his anticipated crusade for the White House. His staffers were all optimism and smiles — and not just polite, American smiles.
Again, bookstores were full of his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and toward the end of the following year, general expectations turned into reality. Riding a wave of euphoria lined with mottoes like “hope” and “change,” Obama became the American president. Four years later, he repeated his victory — less triumphantly, but still altogether convincingly. He made accommodating gestures to the Muslim world and Russia, and soon, he even won the Nobel Peace Prize. He initiated radical reforms at home, namely in the health care system.
November 2014 presents a somewhat different Obama, or more precisely, a different view of him. This is not just because his Democratic Party collapsed in the midterm congressional elections, as expected — Democrats lost their majority in the Senate and deepened their losses in the House. It’s a question of Obama’s role in the elections. Aware of his low popularity, he stressed that the elections were not about him. Democrats, who preferred not to associate too much with him in the campaign, perceived things similarly. Arguments also surfaced between top Democrats and Obama, for instance, over the use of campaign funds.
Republicans, in contrast, played the Obama card: of course, not by singing odes to the president, but by relentlessly criticizing him, and by convincing voters that these elections WERE about Obama. That was no problem, after all. The U.S. faces myriad problems, from the controversial health care reforms to illegal immigration, to the expansion of the Islamic State and the rather dysfunctional “reset” with Russia. A more careful selection of candidates and the mobilization of those who initially ran lax campaigns also played a role in the Republican triumph. The result is that Obama is going to have to manage with a hostile Congress for his remaining two years in office.
In the American political environment, that’s nothing unusual — perhaps, quite the opposite. In the context of low popularity, partisan disputes, and anticipated fierce party primaries ahead of the next presidential contest, it doesn’t bode well for Obama’s finale in the White House. But as we know, strong leaders feel better in unfavorable circumstances, when they can fully demonstrate their abilities. This is the moment for Obama. Now, it will become apparent to what extent his audacity of hope, and his talk of hope and change, have been – or not – empty slogans.