Hardball host Chris Matthews has a theory about Barack Obama: he is running his presidency as though there is no tomorrow—that is, no second term. Matthews, my friend and MSNBC colleague, points to something Obama said during his interview with Diane Sawyer back in January: "The one thing I’m clear about is that I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president."
So far in his presidency Obama has been tackling, even seeking out, sweeping, controversial challenges: the stimulus, the auto bailout, health-care reform, a new arms-control treaty with Russia. He still wants to deal with comprehensive energy and immigration legislation this year. So, is he in hurry because he figures there may be no second term?
Well, my answer is this: Obama is playing a deep, longer-range game, one that involves burnishing his identity as a "historical," history-making figure. The president is swinging for the fences because that is what home-run hitters do. He hopes (expects) voters will reward him for the effort. Hence, his focus on the toughest topics in the broadest way. To switch sports analogies, if he were an Olympic diver, he’d always be attempting the dives with the highest degree of difficulty. If the execution isn’t perfect, he gets a higher score anyway.
In 2008 Obama ran on "history" and will run again in 2012 on the same theme: that he (and we) were the change we’d been waiting for. He and David Axelrod, his chief political adviser and spin doctor, believe—not incorrectly—that Obama’s chief appeal lies in the sense that he is someone who embodies and makes breakthroughs of pivotal proportions.
By the summer of 2012, Obama and Axelrod hope, they will be able to insist that this is a history-making presidency, reshaping and reinvigorating the role of government in health care, on Wall Street, and in other aspects of American life. Obama will argue that he was, and is, on the right side of history, just as Lincoln and FDR (and yes, in a different way, Ronald Reagan) were. He’s hoping that the economy will improve enough, and the war against Al Qaeda will go well enough, that voters will be able to see how much history he is trying to make.
At least that’s my sense of the grand arc of the Obama reelection strategy. In its focus on the patterns of history, it has a University of Chicago professor’s shape and tinge to it. And the appeal to history and the making of it worked in 2008 deeply, emotionally for many voters in the fantasy world of presidential campaigning and media.
But there is more to Chicago than the University of Chicago (though Obama taught there and Axelrod studied there). Any real politician, or leader, in the Windy City knows that the game is all about whether you plow the snow, plug the potholes, collect the garbage, and keep the aldermen in line. And that is the Chicago game that Obama hasn’t really mastered and, frankly, never really learned because he didn’t need to.
Now he does, facing a stubbornly weak world economy, two intractable wars, and a massive ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Those are the real tests—not the more optional ones—and the ones that will decide what history Obama really makes.