He campaigned for change. But what has changed about Obama?

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U.S. President Barack Obama attends the plenary session of the 21st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh...
U.S. President Barack Obama attends the plenary session of the 21st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh...
Samrang Pring/Reuters

The changes are easy to see: the greying hair, the deep-scored lines on the face, the dark rings around the eyes.

The presidency is a brutal job and fresh-faced newcomers age rapidly in office, even when there isn’t an economic collapse or two wars to wind down.

Four years ago, Barack Obama was a young president when he stood before more than a million freezing fans on the National Mall to deliver a low-key inaugural address. He was also relatively inexperienced, as his former rival Hillary Clinton was once happy to point out. As he stands before a smaller but still sizeable crowd to deliver his second inaugural, President Obama is a markedly older man in appearance and demeanor. He also carries the scars of political battle that he could hardly imagine as he started his improbable journey to the White House, six years ago.

But the changes are largely on the surface. His political style and policy positions have barely budged in four years. His private life remains rock solid, and his personal style is still measured, unflappable, reserved almost to the point of anti-social. His highs are brief and moderated; his lows are long and quiet. His flashes of anger are more chilly than hot; his humor is edgy but rarely in view. The gap between the personal and public Obama is intentionally wide: a gap where he implausibly tries to maintain some privacy in the world’s most public position of power.

Even the paradoxes of President Obama remain stubbornly unresolved. Here is one of Washington’s most competitive politicians–-someone who ferociously wants to win at everything from a game of pool to the next debt ceiling fight–who still believes he can find common ground between red and blue America. He scored a resounding victory in his second presidential election and curtly reminds Republicans who oppose him, “I won.” And yet he’s still prepared to compromise on everything from entitlement reforms to oil and gas exploration.

Some liberals like to accuse Obama of reversing himself or selling out. Many conservatives like to accuse him of being a phony moderate, or worse: a radical socialist. Both extremes are suffering from faulty memories or willful distortions of reality.

Obama’s record tracks closely to his promises from his two presidential campaigns.

He said he would wind down the war in Iraq to focus on the war in Afghanistan and killing al Qaeda’s leadership. There are many liberals who lament Obama’s ramping up of troop numbers in Afghanistan, or his use of drones in its border region. But they cannot credibly claim that Obama reversed his position on either.

Yes, Guantanamo Bay remains open. But it took both Democratic and Republican votes in Congress to deny Obama the funds to convert a high security prison on the mainland into a replacement for detainees. In the meantime, the prison camp changed. Even the loudest liberal voices in Obama’s first-term cabinet believe that today’s Guantanamo has little in common with the Guantanamo of President Bush’s first term.

Did Obama go too small on the stimulus? He won all of three GOP votes to save the U.S. economy, spending more than $800 billion in the process. That was as much as Bush spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A bigger Recovery Act could never have passed through Congress.

Did he give up too easily on a public option in healthcare reform? Obama never advocated for a public option in 2008, and nor did his Democratic rivals for the nomination. He almost destroyed his presidency getting his healthcare reform signed into law, and won precisely zero Republican votes along the way.

Some liberals have good reason to be unhappy with Obama, but their reasons do not lie in his reversals. Rather, they lie in his inability to push more change through Congress in the two years Democrats maintained control of the House. He failed to follow through with climate change legislation, although he introduced tough fuel standards for the auto industry. He also failed to push ahead with immigration reform, and his get-tough strategy on deportations and enforcement failed to win him any GOP support. At least immigration reform looks to have a reasonable chance of winning some measure of support in the coming term from Republicans worried about losing Latino votes for decades to come.

Conservatives have even less excuse to be surprised. They may be unhappy that a Democratic president has beaten them soundly in two presidential elections. They may be unhappy that he has stolen their claim to be the party of national security. But their outraged allegations that he’s a radical are ridiculous.

The supposed socialist raised taxes only on wealthy families–and only on the share of their incomes above $450,000 a year. He never nationalized the banks or the auto industry, when any self-respecting socialist would have seized the opportunity. Instead he continues to sell the government’s shares to recoup bailout cash and even turn a profit. Lenin would not be happy.

For most conservatives, healthcare reform was an unconstitutional interference with the American economy. Until the conservative-led Supreme Court ruled otherwise; putting them in cahoots with the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation and the severely conservative Mitt Romney, who both pioneered the ideas that underpin Obamacare.

The president has indeed said some unkind words about Wall Street. He called some of its executives “fat cats.” He signed into law some extensive regulations of the financial services industry. In the meantime, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled from its low, at around 6600, in the first full month of Obama’s presidency.

Lenin would be even less impressed.

President Obama has struggled, for sure. The economy remains sluggish and unemployment remains high. To say it could be worse is no comfort to those who are out of work. But conservatives who believe that spending cuts are the surest path to growth need only look at the depressed economy in the U.K., where a conservative prime minister is now looking at a triple-dip recession. That’s triple: as in, two more than this president has seen in office.

It’s true that Obama did promise to cut the deficit. But he made that promise before the economy lost more than two million jobs between his election and his first inauguration. It lost another two million jobs by his first spring in Washington. Republicans had no problem blowing up the deficit for national security reasons through two wars under President Bush. They now apparently believe there is no reason to blow up the deficit in order to keep the economy from backsliding disastrously.

If the president feels sorry for himself, he need only look up from his desk in the Oval Office to see the face of someone whose challenges were far greater, in a country that was far more divided.

Martin Luther King holds a special place in Obama’s pantheon of heroes, and a bronze sculpture of his head–the first image of an African-American on public display in the White House (brought to the Executive Mansion by the Clintons)–sits beneath a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The program to King’s 1963 March on Washington sits on a bookshelf nearby, and a quote King made famous is literally woven into the rug on the Oval Office floor: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

As a young man Obama dreamed of being part of the civil rights movement; it was the movement that inspired him to become a community organizer. Now he is taking his second oath of office as president on Martin Luther King Day, using King’s bible.

But King’s example is a hard one to compare to Obama’s. In his first year in office, Obama followed in King’s footsteps by winning the Nobel peace prize. As a president who was escalating the war in Afghanistan, this was an awkward experience. Flattering, for sure. But hard to reconcile with his own record at war, and hard to compare to King’s pacifism. Obama’s acceptance speech remains the best, and most carefully written, of his presidency to date. It tries to reconcile war and peace; political hope and reality; and King’s idealism with Obama’s pragmatism.

His conclusion is perhaps the best guide to Obama’s own brand of politics, as he tries to shape his legacy in the brief window of opportunity at the start of his second term.

Speaking to his Nobel audience, Obama claimed that peace would not emerge suddenly, but from what President Kennedy called “a gradual evolution in human institutions”: international standards of war, universal human rights, sanctions and diplomacy. They were not the tactics of the civil rights movement. King did not believe in a gradual evolution; in fact he strongly opposed those who advised him to slow down.

Still, King was, for Obama, a North Star. “Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us,” he said. “But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.”

Five years ago, as he was flying through the night to Seattle in the middle of the primary contests, then-candidate Obama tried to explain to me what he meant about Change. Yes, he wanted to overcome voter apathy, the power of special interests and the reliance on PR spin. But he was also aware that he was likely to fall short, that he was–as he used to say to voters in his first campaign–a flawed vessel for their hopes, even as he knew he was raising those hopes.

In short, he knew he was a disappointment in waiting. Wasn’t that a reason to be skeptical of what he was promising to do?

“That’s too cynical,” Obama said. “If the argument is that money is always going to have some influence in Washington, that politicians are always more concerned with staying in office and maintaining their status, that men and women are flawed, evil and sinful creatures, then yes. We haven’t achieved heaven on earth. But the country was profoundly different as a consequence of John F. Kennedy. It’s fair to say he helped to release the energy, that his presidency helped create the space for a whole generation to re-imagine civil rights, to re-imagine war, to think about America’s relationship to the rest of the world, to start thinking about the role of women in society.”

President Obama has often failed to live up to his own ideals, whether because of unforeseen circumstance, unforced error or forceful opposition. But he understands the power of those ideals: of reaching for something higher, and of working towards change. If he can’t be a King, perhaps he can be a Kennedy. He might not have the moral force of an MLK, or the political force of an LBJ. But he does have the proven ability to inspire millions to engage with politics and to vote, against significant odds.

In that sense Obama represents a transformation of American politics, a kind of change you can believe in. The open question is whether he will use his organization and inspiration to keep those millions more engaged after this election than he did before.  That was the hope of his first campaign, and it remains the hope of his second term.

He campaigned for change. But what has changed about Obama?

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