Obama the transformer -- but what kind?

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Four years ago Barack Obama sought to be a president as transformative as he said another Great Communicator had been for an earlier generation. He may well attain his goal, but -- as uncontrollable events and his own choices play out -- perhaps not in the way that he or anyone else ever imagined.

Will he be transformative like Ronald Reagan? Or like Jimmy Carter?

The crowds who gathered on college campuses during Reagan's first run for the White House weren't much like those who cheered the charismatic Sen. Obama four years ago. The cheerful Hollywood actor was too old and grandfatherly to cause that kind of thrill, and some of his college crowds seemed to be protesting the ayatollah as much as they were rallying 'round Reagan.

"Argo," the new Ben Affleck movie on the audacious rescue of some of America's embassy employees in Tehran in 1980, mixes archival news footage seamlessly with the director's own work to bring all that history back to life. The Iranian scenes of frenzied crowds burning Western leaders in effigy and hanging suspected traitors from cranes were newly wrenching.

American demonstrations, quite tame by comparison, filtered down from college campuses to high schools. The only political act of our 1980 graduating class was burning an Iranian flag on the school's front steps. As we new voters cast our first ballots that year, frustration with American weakness at home and abroad had kids my age thronging to Reagan.

Surely President Obama remembers such scenes: He's only nine months older than I am.

Ronald Reagan ran for office against a backdrop of "stagflation," energy shortages and the humiliation in the Middle East. Many blamed Carter, and Reagan launched a new era of conservatism -- even among the young.

Barack Obama arrived on the national scene against a backdrop of the Great Recession and two unending wars in the Middle East. Many blamed Bush, and people hungry for hope and change flocked to him, especially the young. It was a watershed, they said, a generational transformation, turning millions permanently to the Left.

But now this transformative president is running for a second term -- and the backdrop today is endless recession and new humiliation in the Middle East. To a listless "recovery" and worsening Afghan war, he has added skyrocketing energy prices and the disaster in Benghazi.

Will Mr. Obama's transformative efforts survive, as Reagan's did, past his presidency? Or will they be brushed away, like the Carter era?

From the autumn of 2008 through winter 2009, European masses thronged to hear the candidate and the elite to bestow on him a great prize. But by last autumn, posters appeared in European cities depicting Obama as a beggar, hoping for some "change." (See image above from Vienna.) The adoration is gone abroad.

And at home? The media won't turn on Mr. Obama as they did on Jimmy Carter. (They were already overwhelmingly skeptical of Reagan, so there was no "turning" to do.)

What's forgotten in the Obama-as-Reagan narrative is that Jimmy Carter was supposed to be "hope and change" in his day, too. His election was a way to put the Nixon years, with their disgrace in Vietnam and Watergate, behind us.

But the East Coast establishment loathed him, and when the nation's fortunes failed to improve, the press turned his fishing trip encounter with a swimming, hissing rabbit into a bizarre summation of his supposedly hopeless, hapless tenure.

There'll be no "killer rabbit" episode this time (though we do have Joe Biden's teeth). The mainstream and left-wing cable factions of the baby boomer-dominated media will continue to help the candidate they see as one of them -- as witnessed by their failure to look too closely at the administration's actions, or inaction, in Benghazi. They may not adore anymore, but his success affirms their inclinations.

And the adoring crowds at home? The kids who once flocked to the president have graduated; they're overwhelmingly jobless, in debt and in their parents' basements. Do they still identify with the Obama of 2008? Will they lean left for life?

The campaign grinds toward answers. Mythic figure to mere politician, nanny-staters to free marketers, exasperating health insurance tangles to state-controlled quagmire -- transformation of all sorts is straight ahead.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com. First Published October 29, 2012 4:00 AM


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