During a recent panel discussion at Salem State University, the moderator invited Michael Dukakis to blame the media and the forces of Republican evil for his 1988 loss to George H.W. Bush. Dukakis declined the invitation. “I lost because of Mike Dukakis,” he said.
If President Obama wins reelection on Tuesday, he can thank Hurricane Sandy and Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Those forces of nature gave him the look of leadership and bipartisanship when he desperately needed it.
But if Obama loses to Republican Mitt Romney, he, too, will have only himself to blame.
Obama supporters will blame his loss on racism, Mitch McConnell’s pledge to defeat the president, and Romney’s willingness to say or do anything to win.
But if defeat comes, it will also spring from the dashed hopes of voters of all ethnic backgrounds who once believed in Obama. Their disappointment crystallized at the worst possible time, the last five weeks of the campaign.
The race started tipping away from Obama after the first debate. He recovered in the next two debates. But he has yet to give voters a clear picture of what a second term would look like and how it would differ from the first. He never told us what he learned in office or how he grew. He let questions linger about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, giving his opponent a platform to challenge his integrity.
Of course, voter expectations for an Obama presidency were overblown from the start. There is always disconnect between campaign sloganeering — in this case, hope — and the reality of life in Washington. To govern today is to have a million critics who are online holding a referendum every five minutes on your leadership.
People who thought Obama would lead them to the Promised Land were living in fantasy land. But he did nothing to dissuade them from their dreams when he campaigned to win the White House. And when politicians live by the dream, they die by it.
Once he took office, Obama faced a terrible financial crisis and Republicans who vowed to make him a one-term president. He failed to promote the benefits of health insurance reform, turning his signature achievement into a political liability. He disappointed his base by turning his back on causes dear to liberal hearts and was still labeled a socialist by political foes. He was too remote and didn’t like tough, behind-the-scenes politicking.
But despite a sluggish economic recovery and Republicans committed to undermining the president’s every move, Team Obama did a decent job of setting up a scenario for a second term. It gave the incumbent credit for inching the country forward just enough to earn a second chance.
The Obama campaign also exploited every Romney gaffe and misstep to its full advantage. The president finally embraced “Obamacare,” in name and spirit. In Charlotte, Bill Clinton made a better case for Obama’s reelection than Obama ever did. Coming after the GOP’s disjointed convention in Tampa, reelection started to feel probable if not entirely inevitable.
Those who were still clinging to the myth, as opposed to the man, got a wake-up call during the first presidential debate. All the millions spent on Romney attack ads disappeared in the face of Obama’s disengagement. It was like pulling the curtain back on the great and powerful Oz, and seeing the flawed human being instead of the wizard of smoke and mirrors.
Ever the pragmatist, Romney turned into moderate Mitt at just the right moment. But Obama is also at fault for not anticipating this transformation. Romney won election as governor of Massachusetts in that moderate mode. It was always his best path to victory in a national race, and Romney wisely plunged down it when 68 million Americans were watching. Why wasn’t Obama ready for it?
If Obama wins, it will be because Romney made one transformation too many, giving voters reason to put trust ahead of dashed hope.
If he wins, he can thank that photo-op with Christie and a post-Sandy endorsement from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
If he loses, he will have to look in the mirror and face the fault that lies in the man.