Of course, there are sober compromises and solutions that would allow Obama to cut deals with the Republicans in the fashion of Bill Clinton after the 1994 elections. Reforming entitlements by upping the retirement age would fall more heavily on the older, more affluent population and would help the pro-Obama younger population. On immigration, he could agree to pathways to citizenship for the majority of long-term illegal residents while conceding the need to deport the minority who are not working and are habitually on public assistance, who have criminal records, or who have only recently arrived — while also making legal immigration ethnically blind and predicated on merit. On energy, Obama could green-light more natural-gas and oil production on public lands, which would be about as easy a way to help the economy as he could devise. Indeed, since Obama is already taking credit for increased fossil-fuel production that has occurred despite rather than because of his efforts, he should have no problem with opening up federal lands and claiming that he really did not.
Yet Obama is likely going to pass on all of those. It is almost as if he does not wish to have a conventionally successful second term — which is probably true, in that he apparently defines success very differently from the way even his congressional allies might. For Obama, the means — the perpetual campaign; the constant assault on “fat cats,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and the “Republican House” — are not merely justified by the ends, but are more satisfying than achieving them.
Indeed, the Obama modus operandi is based on a familiar constant over his time in the public eye: His “nontraditional,” post-racial persona, his youth, his teleprompted eloquence, and his spell over the media have convinced him that he can talk, pout, and tantrum his way to out-pointing others in lieu of concrete achievement. The thrill is found not so much in successful compromise as in perpetual acrimony and division. Think up a fantasy us/them wedge issue — millions of assault weapons slaughtering the nation’s youth, Latinos being deported while buying ice cream, the seas soon to lap over our cities, gay couples hounded by homophobic reactionaries, a nation of African-American victims like Trayvon Martin and Professor Gates in need of editorial support, the parents of tens of millions of children without sufficient food stamps or unemployment and disability insurance, planes falling out of the sky for want of federal air-traffic controllers — and then demonize the opposition, hit the campaign trail, and finally, exhausted, end up relaxing and golfing with the nation’s plutocrats and celebrities — until the next round of us/them theatrics.
For a soon-to-be post-presidential Obama, these psychodramas are expected to lead to a comfortable retirement and a lifelong reputation for uncompromising leftism among historians and sycophants. And for Obama, that may be enough. An undistinguished undergraduate record led to Harvard Law, where veritable non-productivity led to an offer of a law lectureship, where non-existent legal scholarship led to an invitation of tenure, even as an underachieving Chicago community-organizing career was deemed a success, a mediocre stint in the Illinois legislature was pronounced productive and a pathway to higher office, a brief nondescript interlude as a U.S. senator was declared substantial, a Nobel Prize was awarded for being there, and one successful election was about mythical “hope and change” and another about Mitt Romney’s elevator and his equestrian wife. Does anyone today note that Obama was a so-so Columbia student, a mediocre Harvard Law Review editor, a nondescript state legislator and U.S. senator, and a virtual Nobel Peace Prize winner — or is the consensus instead that he has compiled an impressive résumé?
Achievement is in both the contest and the symbolism of getting there, not in the accomplishment of anything after arrival.
For Obama there is not even “My way or the highway.” You see, the highway — not my way — was the point all along.