In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after Mitt Romney phones up to concede, Barack Obama will have to make the speech of his life.
Like another Illinois politician who sat in the White House, Obama presides over a house divided against itself. The toxic narratives of the 2012 presidential campaign (many of which date from the 2008 campaign) will linger unless some real magic can bring the United States back together again.
When President Obama won the 2008 election, I declared, tongue only partly in cheek, that I should go and work on the Palin 2012 campaign. The best way to ensure an Obama victory, I said, was to get his opposition to put a complete muppet up against him. In the end, the Republicans did something much stranger: They put up a liberal Republican who was willing to pretend to be a conservative Republican.
While most of the Republican leaders, past and future, hid in the bushes; Romney was pushed forward to convince the Republican base that the man who brought universal health care to Massachusetts was at heart a social and fiscal conservative.
Of course he never could. Fortunately for him, what he mostly had to do was let other people convince Americans that Barack Obama was somehow responsible for the 2007 financial crash (as if anyone other than the late JP Morgan could have prevented the ensuing depression), and convince Americans that Barack Obama was wet under the ears on defense (Obama, the commander-in-chief who shifted American operations in Afghanistan from cuddly counterinsurgency to butcher-and-bolt).
What Romney mostly had to do was let other Republicans remind their voters that Barack Obama was not a white man, and pretend that Romney himself wasn’t the closest thing to a Republican Kennedy.
Do you remember the film “Primary Colors“? John Travolta as presidential candidate Governor Jack Stanton in his borrowed satin kippah telling elderly Jewish voters in Florida what they wanted to hear about Israel? Romney has done that, not only in Miami but in Mei Ami. He’s talked the talk, just as he has to the gentiles in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. It was easy for Romney; he could say what he liked without having to get up the next morning and conduct foreign policy.
This doesn’t make me despise Romney. Not much; he’s practicing politics, and that’s his job. I could even think about supporting him if he weren’t running against Barack, but like almost everyone else in Europe, I’m a fan of President Obama.
I say “almost” because I expect the Islamist population of Europe was hoping for a yahoo of a crusader. It’s hard to confront an America that isn’t interested in confrontation, and the mild, scholarly Obama is almost impossible to depict in the traditional cowboy gear of hated American presidents.
When in 2009 I took a group of British Army officers on a cultural awareness seminar in Israel, they were astonished to see bus shelters on the way to Hebron plastered with images of Obama in Arafat’s keffiyeh. They were surprised that anyone could possibly associate an American president with anti-Israel sentiment. (They obviously didn’t remember James Baker’s tenure in Old Man Bush’s White House.) They assumed that the newly-sworn-in Obama would stand staunchly by Israel. Which he did.
I do have to confess myself astonished at the anti-Obama narrative among American Israelis. From “Obama is a Muslim” (he isn’t, but so what?) to “Obama kept Bibi waiting” (often from people who think that there are pictures of Bibi next to the definition of slime mold in the dictionary). From “Obama equated the Holocaust with being Palestinian” (which he didn’t) to “Obama won’t confront Iran” (which he did). Even the staunchest Democrat in Israel, Shelly Schorer, was able to muster nothing stronger in Obama’s favor than “President Obama is a known quantity” in his endorsement on this web site.
The success of this narrative bespeaks a gap between American Israelis and Jewish Americans that will be as hard to heal as the rift between American people who view Obama as their president and those who don’t.
The success of the anti-Obama narrative among Anglos in Ra’anana and Zichron, Shiloh and Jerusalem, is especially difficult to understand, because out of all Americans who stand to lose in the event that a confrontation with Iran will turn into war, American Israelis stand to lose the most.
The result is that the parallel rift between Jerusalem and J Street is even wider than the gap between the O’Reillys and the the Mahers in America. One struggles to think of someone who could close that rift, though Michael Oren’s name comes to mind.
Before he goes to sleep early on Wednesday, two months before his second inaugural address, President Obama is going to have to muster his best oratorical skills. He’s going to have to speak to people who have their hands over their ears. They don’t believe he’s an American. They don’t believe he’s decent. They don’t believe he’s like them. They’ve stretched their credulity to the breaking point to believe that Mitt Romney is a policy genius and that Obama is an evil socialist dictator like Stalin.
To quote another American president’s second inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Obama’s abilities as a speaker might be up to the task.