The American people gave Obama a new start, but in awarding him a second term, they changed the terms of engagement. Not so much four more years, they seemed to say, as four different years.
If the American people felt otherwise, they would have elected Romney — or given Obama a bigger victory. Despite the numbers, this was a grudging victory, delivered by a nation that no longer wants its leaders to hold grudges.
In the last day of his last campaign, Obama returned to Iowa, where his unlikely rise to power began with an astonishing caucus victory in the winter of 2008, and there he spoke of his “movement for change.” Hours later, the voters’ verdict indicated that Americans do want change, just as they did in 2008, but also a change in the way the president conducts business. The margin of victory this time, smaller than it was four years ago, is a signal that its chief executive’s performance was acceptable, but only barely so.
Two months after that remarkable 1960 meeting in Key Biscayne, newly inaugurated President Kennedy, seemingly awed by the challenges he faced, stood before both houses of Congress and delivered a sobering State of the Union message.
“We cannot afford to waste idle hours and empty plants while awaiting the end of the recession,” the 35th president said. “We must show the world what a free economy can do — to reduce unemployment, to put unused capacity to work, to spur new productivity, and to foster higher economic growth within a range of sound fiscal policies and relative price stability.”
So, too, must Barack Obama’s America.
Four years ago, it seemed as if Obama had begun a new era of progressivism, fueled by a new generation of Americans who had turned away from conservatism. This morning that seems far less certain.