Obama and the sweep of history

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It’s been a just over a year since Election Day. A year ago, Barack Obama stood on a stage at Grant Park in Chicago and stepped into history. The challenges he was sure to face were waiting.

Today, Obama is beginning to look small against the sweep of history. What the early days of his administration prove is that no president, no matter how history-making, can fully control events.

What has happened since Election Day lends clarity to what happened before it. Then, Obama seemed preternaturally calm, composed, controlled. He was a step ahead of everyone, not least the hapless campaign of Sen. John McCain.

Now, Obama is defined by the incredible latitude he has given to the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the various “leaders” of his party’s congressional majority to shape the signature legislation of his first term.

Now, he is defined by a difficult war he did not start, and seems to have no idea how to win, or even end.

During the campaign, it never seemed as though the moment was too large for Obama. He was at ease with the expectations, and he welcomed them.

It’s probably safe to say that if the president knew then what he knows now, he would have toned down the “this is the moment the planet began to heal” stuff. Sure, it sounded nice then, but it’s a little cringe-worthy now.

Perhaps the dawning recognition that Obama is, like most politicians, simply reacting to events he didn’t create or foresee will help temper how both sides of the political divide view him.

To too many on the right, Obama is a man with a master plan and diabolical powers of persuasion who is marching the country toward oblivion. Wheels within wheels.

To many on the left, Obama is the embodiment of the spirit of democracy, the hope for a new generation, the calm in the center of a storm.

It now seems clear that neither portrayal of the president is quite right.

Obama has no master plan to end capitalism and usher in a worker’s paradise. He also can’t heal the planet and bring hope to broken hearts.

Some of this realization is about him. Many expected him to be more in command, to be a steady hand at the wheel in trying times.

But mostly, it’s about us. We want so badly to believe that our presidents are larger than life, and that they have some book of answers that can only be read by the great and good. We want them to be brave and noble, or dastardly and corrupt, so we can either revere or vilify them.

But that’s not how it is. Our presidents are like us, people who struggle in difficult times, who are prey to sins of hubris and mindless blunders, but who nearly always do their best.

Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, due in large part to the efforts of a great president. But even President Ronald Reagan was no perfect action hero. What led him to greatness was, more than anything, an ability to read the signs of the times and react with principle, grace and humor.

For that, he is remembered as great.