What a difference four years makes.
Slightly over four years ago, on February 10, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama announced his intention to run for the presidency in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the same place another Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln, delivered his famous "House Divided" speech in 1858. Thousands of people huddled in subzero temperatures to witness that historic event. Obama criticized what he called the "smallness of our politics." "The time for that politics is over," he told the cheering crowd. "It is through. It is time to turn the page."
Obama spoke repeatedly of the importance of what he called "hope" and, in the words of The New York Times, portrayed "his campaign less as a candidacy and more as a movement." "Each and every time," he said, "a new generation has risen up and done what has needed to be done. Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call." (Source)
After years of George W. Bush's presidency, Obama captivated people. He hypnotized them. He became a modern-day Pied Piper. People succumbed en masse to his siren call. People snapped up his books on Amazon.com. They cheered him on as a "man of the people." Americans, young and old, rallied around him, supporting him despite attacks from inside and outside of his party. Obama could do no wrong in people's eyes. They viewed him as a savior. Without doubt, part of his appeal had to do with the fact that he was the first African American frontrunner in a major presidential campaign.
I myself called him "this generation's Abraham Lincoln."
But it was more than that. People saw in Obama what they wanted to see in him. Liberals regarded him as a liberal. Outsiders thought of him as an outsider, a man with limited experience who appeared destined to lead a great nation. Independents felt he was more of a genuine maverick than John McCain, his Republican foe. A "Cult of Obama" took hold. It swept people away.
Flash forward to today, April 4, 2011. Few took notice of Obama declaring himself a candidate for re-election. The announcement went out with a whimper, not a bang.
"We can't go backwards," he told the nation today. "We have to preserve the progress that we've made and take it to the next level, and that means that we're going to have to mobilize." (Source)
Or, as a campaign email in my Inbox from the Obama folks said, simply, "We aren't finished."
Despite a dimming of the enthusiasm, the White House will probably be an easy conquest for Obama. He will, in all likelihood, win handily in 2012. Most pundits are already concurring with that prediction.
Look at his challengers. The Republican opposition, thus far, has done a dismal job of finding someone up to the task of running against Obama. Michele Bachmann? Sarah Palin? Mitt Romney? Tim Pawlenty? Newt Gingrich??? Really? Newt Gingrich? Seriously? Newt Gingrich? Does anybody really think Newt Gingrich is going to be the next commander in chief? What a sorry state of affairs when some think he may actually be a contender.
The only credible challenger to Obama thus far has been Representative Ron Paul, who could easily forge a coalition of Republicans, Independents and even leftists who applaud his anti-interventionist politics. But the Republican Party leadership is likely to put the kibosh on those plans. Like him or not, Ron Paul, unlike John McCain, is a genuine maverick whose anti-establishment politics are a breath of fresh air in this age of tired, stale, partisan politics.
Barring any unforeseen disasters (particularly of the economic variety), victory in '12, at this point, appears highly likely for Obama. Professor Peverill Squire, who teaches political science at the University of Missouri, put it best: "If the economy does chug along the way it is now a lot of people may be more comfortable going with Obama." (Source)
Squire is right. And Tea Party talk about Obama being a "socialist" and a Muslim who wasn't born in the United States won't make a dent in his reelection bid if the economy continues to, in Squire's well-chosen words, "chug along."
But there will be something missing from Obama's victory this time around. There won't be any dancing in the streets. Don't expect two million people to journey to Washington, D.C., in chartered buses, carrying the iconic red and blue stencil picture of Obama with the words "Hope" and "Change" below his face.
Those of us who voted for Obama knew it would take time to repair Bush's errors. That is not the source of the disillusionment. No, the despair comes from a man who stands for nothing, who has reneged on so many promises, and who has done little to actually help people reclaim politics. So little, in fact, that some of his former supporters have actually flocked to the Tea Party, hoping perhaps its promises of change may yield greater results.
Today, the day Obama announced plans to run for president, a Los Angeles Times headline told of yet another broken promise. "No Guantanamo suspects will be tried in U.S. civilian courts." (Source) So much for the vow to close Guantanamo. Add it to a long list of unfulfilled vows.
Men and women who trudge to the polls on Election Day 2012 will not do so with the illusion that they're reclaiming American politics. This time, the idealism will be nonexistent. Joy will be knocked off her perch by pragmatism. And that euphoric moment on November 4, 2008 - Election Day - will be largely forgotten, recalled only be a few who look back fondly at a very different time, when an eloquent president-elect momentarily convinced ordinary voters that the system did, indeed, belong to them, and it was theirs for the taking.