The greatest political mystery of recent times is the mystery of the two Obamas. Once upon a time there was Obama the Candidate. He seems like a fairytale character today, three years into the administration of President Obama. Candidate Obama swept to victory on 53 per cent of the popular vote, under a soaring rhetorical banner of "change". This week a respected American polling group, Evolving Strategies, reported that President Obama would be beaten by any of the three leading Republican contenders– Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Herman Cain – if the election were held today.
If these names don't ring a bell, don't worry. Most Americans have barely heard of them, which is why the poll was based on showing the public videos of each man, along with a potted biography, to be compared with a video of Obama.
Mitt Romney – the Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts who is the only "centrist" in a mob of far-right, creationist, anti-abortionist Republican prospective candidates – polled seven points ahead of Obama. He was closely followed by Texas governor Rick Perry, a Marlboro Man-lookalike creationist who threatened the chairman of the Federal Reserve with lynching. He was six points clear of the President. Finally, portly businessman Herman Cain, a pizza industry executive with zero elected political experience but enjoying increasingly popularity among the Tea Party lunatic fringe, eclipsed Obama by one point, 35 per cent to 34 per cent.
How is this possible? What became of Candidate Obama – visionary, charismatic, audacious? Where did he go? Who is this capitulating, anxious, uninspiring figure who has occupied the White House for the past three years?
This week Obama's jobs bill failed in the Senate. Aimed at easing dire US unemployment by stimulating the economy, it was not an audacious piece of legislation, but it reflected his pragmatic "balanced" law school approach to problem-solving, an approach which has alienated so many of his former supporters on the left and is reviled by all his opponents on the right. The left wants his visionary rhetoric of 2008 to be embodied in daring acts of leadership, in brave defiance of his political enemies. His political enemies want him to disappear yesterday and roll back the country to the 20th century.
Indeed his most loyal supporters, the African American community, are bewildered by a black leader who seems almost indifferent to blacks suffering under 16.7 per cent unemployment. "If he wasn't the President, we'd be marching on the White House right now," said one member of the Congressional Black Caucus recently.
Although an expatriate, Obama's candidacy reawakened my dormant American political feelings to such an extent that, in 2008, I returned for the election and volunteered for his campaign. I was in Manhattan on election night when joyous people of every age and description filled the streets. It felt like a momentous victory.
Of course, Obama's election coincided with a horrendous legacy: two wars, global terrorism, a huge federal deficit and an economy on the brink of depression. Not to mention a costly and unfair healthcare system, a national infrastructure that was literally falling down, an obscene gap between rich and poor, a state education system that was inferior to almost every other developed nation's, and a mutating sub-society of vicious political extremists.
Yet, on that election night in November 2008, I had no doubt that Obama could, somehow, deal with these challenges. After all, look at what he had just accomplished. He had achieved the impossible. He had been elected the first black President of the United States – a dream which even Martin Luther King would not have allowed to enter his head. But it was Obama's dream and he achieved it.
On the night he became a candidate at the Democratic Convention, he told the crowd, "You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result." He promised "a new politics for a new time".
But what changed was Obama himself after victory. This became evident as soon as he began selecting the members of his Cabinet. He chose to keep Robert Gates, Bush's man at Defence. At the Treasury, he appointed Timothy Geithner of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Hillary Clinton became his Secretary of State. Observing these appointments, I couldn't shake off Obama's own warning about "the greatest risk" being "the same old players".
Obama's election had raised my expectations, along with millions of other people's around the world, to a pinnacle. It must have been truly overwhelming for him to have reached that pinnacle as the first black President. This feat will stand as his monument forever. Yet the man who climbed the mountain is not the man who stands there now. Once his personal vision was fulfilled, he seemed to run out of inspiration. He was still a highly intelligent, pragmatic politician, but a relatively inexperienced one. Faced with the worst economic crisis in living memory, and so many other social and political problems, he lacks a clear vision for how to navigate the way ahead. To me, this helps to explain the mystery of the two Obamas.
In 2008, expectations were lifted high on waves of prophetic rhetoric about "hope" and "change", and by one man's arrival on a mountain top of racial equality. So it is difficult not to feel let down now. Harsh reality is entirely different from visionary experience. I suspect nobody feels this more keenly than Obama now. There were scattered, unattributed reports in the US press this week about the President's increasing "isolation" and feelings of depression within the White House. With the grisly political profiles of Romney, Perry and Herman Cain all in the lead, how could he not be disheartened? Romney is the only mainstream Republican.A millionaire investment banker, his successful healthcare programme in Massachussetts was a template for Obama's federal healthcare compromise legislation. But, reviled by the Tea Party because of this, he has moved increasingly to the Right to appease them, focusing his campaign on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, rather than economic specifics.
If there is a risk of seeing the next US government dominated by right-wing reactionaries, and there is, then would Obama perhaps, in secret, contemplate his own withdrawal from the campaign? Should he allow someone (Hillary Clinton? Andrew Cuomo ?) who has a reasonable chance of beating the zombie Republicans to step forward in his place? It would preserve Obama's monumental achievement as he might wish it to be preserved, without the footnote "... and the first black American President to be voted out of the White House". It might be what his fiercest enemies have been dreaming about. But then it might just save America, and the world, from the nightmare that would be the alternative.