The Obama Comeback

Chicago, November 7, 2012 -- As city workers clean up after Chicago's biggest party since the victory celebration four years earlier, the argument over the roots and reasons of President Barack Obama's stunning political comeback have already begun.

Most people peg his comeback to one event. We all remember where we were on that January night when every network interrupted coverage of the bitterly fought Republican New Hampshire primary to bring us the news that we'd longed for -- Osama Bin Laden was dead, killed by a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone two days earlier. Coming on the heels of the previous summer's capture of Mullah Omar and the catastrophic losses inflicted on the Taliban during the "Obama surge," the previously unthinkable image of an anti-war president as war leader had become reality. His announcement didn't lead to the outpourings of joy seen on V-E day, but even hardened cynics were shocked by the depth and intensity of their own emotions. Justice was done.

But wasn't the stage for Obama's reelection set long before? Unemployment, at 9.8 percent at the end of November 2010, was 9.4 percent by March 2011, 9.2 percent by June, and then 8.8 percent by October. High numbers, to be sure, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. Corporate profits were finally resulting in increased corporate risk-taking, new hiring, and generous raises and bonuses. And with each new positive jobs report, the media hailed the long-awaited "Obama recovery."

Health care was an expensive mess, but health care is always an expensive mess. Enough Americans were happy with their doctor and their plan that they stopped listening to activists who kept suing, kept protesting, and kept clamoring that the sky was falling. Repeal and replace was tried, and it failed, but some of the worst excesses of Obamacare were trimmed. No one noticed much difference in their daily lives, and so they focused on other things.

Of course the Republicans gave him a few free gifts. Opposing parties always do that. No, they didn't force a government shut down. No, they didn't overreach and overpromise like the class of 1994. They held the line on taxes, held down the growth of discretionary spending, and ended egregious earmarking. All things considered, the Tea Party's main effect was to force fiscal discipline not seen since the last split Democratic presidency/Republican congress. Congressional Republicans played it smart.

But not the Republican presidential candidates -- at least not all of them. With the presidential primary season came the hunt for the "True Conservative," the man (or woman) who would ride from the hills on a white horse and rescue America from the age of Obama socialism. In the infighting that followed, Reagan's Eleventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican") was observed mainly in the breach, negative ad followed negative ad, and more than one Republican debate degenerated into a shouting match. "Flame wars" on Facebook sites, blog forums, and Fox News stories exacerbated tensions, and by the time the primary season ended, Obama led the presumptive nominee 52/46, and various embittered Republican factions began assigning blame for losing a presidential race that had barely begun.

Then there were the things that didn't happen. There were no successful domestic terrorist attacks, no serious natural disasters, and no Presidential scandals. It turns out there are real benefits to nominating and electing a man who's unquestionably dedicated to his wife and family, and the Clinton nostalgia that emerged in December 2010 was a product mainly of collective amnesia.

We hold presidents responsible for the swings of the business cycle, for the decisions of lenders and borrowers, for the conduct of privates and sergeants in foreign prisons, and much ink is spilled blaming them when millions of individual decisions add up to economic disaster or crediting them when the resilience of those same millions brings us back from the brink.

The great man theory of history traces most everything of consequence to the leadership of a few, and there is something comforting and convenient about that notion. It's much easier to blame the person on television than the person in the mirror. We forget that courageous leadership is meaningless without courageous citizens, and (except for that one Friday on Calvary) the virtue of one man cannot be imputed to all. General Eisenhower ordered the Normandy beaches taken, but each man on those landing crafts had to make their own choice when the ramps fell.

Political analysis, however, is nothing without its great man theory, so just as it was fair to blame George Bush when a few rogue soldiers with a camera brought the world Abu Ghraib, or to blame Barack Obama when an oil rig he never knew existed exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, was it not just as fair to credit the President for the actions of an alert Predator operator staring with tired eyes at a grainy video screen on a cold January night?