By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Yesterday's showstopper in Massachusetts was the culmination of a grand, long-running political drama. Two Januarys ago, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy touched the shoulder of young Sen. Barack Obama with some stardust, bestowing his blessing and the Camelot glow on his presidential campaign. Just last January, Obama was sworn in as president amid euphoria that has vanished faster than flowers. A year ago today, Washington was floating on arctic air. Weeping frozen tears and hugging strangers was the thing to do on the National Mall as hundreds of thousands travelled millions of miles to witness the first African-American to become president of the United States. The world watched as America celebrated with more joie de vivre than anyone not alive in 1945 could remember.
And now this January, the president took a direct blow to that glow. The Senate seat held by Kennedy and his brother, John F. Kennedy, was just lost to a Republican. The symbolism is not insurmountable, but the timing is like pure Irish tragedy. The loss comes home to the White House and strikes at the story, even myth, that has grown up around Obama ever since Kennedy connected him to the family legend.
Disappointment salts the air, even among his own ardent supporters.
Obama is not tending his own garden, if you will, as deftly as he might.
Underneath the Wall Street banking debacle and the war he escalated in Afghanistan is an underground train of populist alarm; next stop, anger.
The great American middle-class is feeling more stressed out than they can remember and our greatest cultural asset, optimism, is at sea. Obama has not challenged the Wall Street plutocrats (as FDR called them) or the Army generals on their worldviews or numbers on Afghanistan. He spent more time talking to them than he did on putting his own stamp on the healthcare reform bill. Because he let the Senate "work its will" instead of working the phones like masterful legislator Lyndon Baines Johnson, he let his own signature public option go down without a fight.
Kennedy's dream of universal healthcare may be deferred.
For Obama's post-Baby Boomer generation--those of us born in the 1960s who missed the short-lived JFK years--it was sweet to see the best of us rise to the top. Obama has a certain post-modern cool that we liked.
He projected sophistication and a preternatural self-possession. Only later did we see he's cool in the other sense too--hard to reach, remote, not a guy that emotes (a la Bill Clinton) or gets excited easily. For some reason, we don't feel as connected to him personally anymore, as governing a country in crisis seemed to shut down that beaming candidate we fell for. Yes, he's more like a husband than dashing Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth (Jane Austen heroes) now.
The millions of Americans who voted for him believed Obama had a certain magic as he made an "improbable" miracle happen in their lifetime. Many loved his deft way with words. His campaign speeches sparkled with poetry. But a funny thing happened on the president-elect's way to the Mall. His inaugural speech was made of prose, without reaching for stirring heights. His address had a stone cold realism that reminded Americans we were in a war and a recession. His facial expression was older than his 47 years, set in somber lines and creases. Sure, he seemed to be saying, we'll dance all night, but then the party's over.
That dismal message sunk in month by month in 2009. So there's not a lot of joie de vivre going around town or country this January. So eager were we the American people to greet a young bright miracle-maker and it turned out he only had one--his own election. Obama is only human, after all.