Barack Obama has failed to meet the expectations he set for himself: to be an outstanding president. Not just a president, another face in a long line, but a great leader. He wanted to be someone whose image potentially deserved to be carved into Mount Rushmore, an agent of change like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Instead, Obama is a middling president. His accomplishments are meager, though it must be said he did have to contend with the tough circumstances of a financial crisis, volatility in the Middle East, ongoing U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a hostile Republican majority in Congress. Still, the promise that was latent in his arrival at the White House has not been fulfilled.
If he wins on Tuesday - and in spite of it all, his defeat would be more surprising than his victory - he will receive a second chance, the last one he's going to (possibly) get, to strive for the full implementation of his platform, unbound by the restrictions that fetter politicians calculating their chances of reelection. Obama will still have serious opponents in the House of Representatives, which will retain a Republican majority, and the Senate is not expected to have a Democratic majority that's large enough for comfort. In addition, Obama must still face the midterm elections in November 2014, and both parties will be spending 2016 preparing for that year's election. But though these factors will make it harder for Obama to maneuver, they won't prevent him from leading the country.
Voting for Obama today will give the Republican candidate of 2016 a great advantage, possibly an insurmountable one for the Democrats. The chance that a Democratic candidate could win a third straight election should Obama win a second term today seems negligible.
In the six decades since 1952 - the end of a 20-year period that encompasses the Great Depression, World War II and the start of the Cold War, and during which FDR won four terms and Harry Truman won one - the country has been under the helm of a single party for more than eight consecutive years only once, during the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush era. The exceptional affection that many Americans had for Reagan, the Democrat-turned-Republican, helped pave the way for his vice president to lead the country. Whoever Obama's successor in the Democratic Party turns out to be, the starting point for 2016 must be that Americans are unlikely to give the Dems another shot at the White House right after an eight-year run.
This conventional wisdom will free Obama to follow his inclinations. He won't be blamed for a loss in 2016; that's how it goes, the Democrats will say with a sigh. This will give Obama the chance to dare, to attempt to pay off his postdated checks, like his vision of leading a gradual reduction in the nuclear stockpiles around the world, and even the promises over which he had no say, like the unjustified Nobel Peace Prize.
After that Boston-Chicago phone call in which Mitt Romney concedes defeat in a choked-up voice and Obama tells him what a good, fair fight he put up, the president will have a mere few days to launch his second term; assuming he does in fact win, he will be sworn in on January 20, two days before the Israeli election.
The Congress, whose new members will not be sworn in until early 2013, can wait until after Christmas for Obama's new determination to surface, as can the rest of the world. But Israel cannot. This is Obama's second chance, after four years of missed opportunities, to clarify which direction he wants to go on the Middle East, so that Israeli voters will know if they are voting for a prime minister who will be on track to clash with Obama from the get-go.
Obama won't be quick to forget who sought to bring him down. Just yesterday, Sheldon Adelson, major donor to Romney and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, preached to the choir by trying to convince Wall Street Journal readers that they should vote against the Democratic Party because it has abandoned its traditional support for Israel. If this has an element of truth to it, that's because of the policies of Netanyahu and the man who may be his next defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who have increased Israel's isolation and are pushing it closer to a dead end. The little that Obama can do is tell us his views - directly if possible, or in the words of an authoritative source if not - on the choice that Israel faces. Yes, Obama: Intervene in domestic Israeli politics. Don't be scared off at the prospect, for it will be at the cost of lives in Israel and the region.
Those domestic and foreign pressures that kept Netanyahu from attacking Iran earlier this year did us a kindness. As it is, Hurricane Sandy, which has caused a gas shortage on the East Coast, has prompted Obama to exert his authority and order the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency to purchase millions of gallons of unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel. An Israeli attack on Iran last month could have led Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz and throw a wrench in the global oil supply, as well as caused a gas shortage or drastic price hike in the United States. And if Sandy had blown in anyway, further intensifying the crisis, Israel would have been blamed for the suffering of millions of Americans.
In addition to making intensive efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian accord, Obama can be expected to give Iran a clear choice: talks or combat aircraft. He won't waste his second chance. The only thing keeping Obama from fulfilling his vision is one tiny little thing, something trivial really: victory at the polls.
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