Hoosiers had seen the sheen of the campaign: Barack and Michelle at a town hall at Garfield Park, shooting buckets at Riverview Park in Elkhart, visiting the family homestead in Kempton. Most remember the Obama campaign as a juggernaut. But he was really on his heels when he came to Indiana. Victories in Iowa, South Carolina, Super Tuesday and an 11-primary winning streak had faded into losses to Clinton in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Now he faced primaries in the red states of Indiana and North Carolina and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had resurfaced at the National Press Club where he performed and hammed it up and called Obama a “typical politician.”
The book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heileman said it was at this moment that Obama was “in profound self-doubt.” Obama and press aide Robert Gibbs agreed it was “the moment of maximum peril” for the campaign.
“I know what I gotta do,” Obama said. He had a press conference in North Carolina and said of Rev. Wright, “His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.”
A couple of hours later, Obama was on the phone with me. “Is there ever a point where this is worth all of the personal sacrifices?” I asked, not knowing that I was talking to a man in the dumps.
Obama hid his emotions well. He was friendly and conversant. “Well, when you run for president, one of the things you sign on to is the fact the American people want to know who you are and all aspects of you,” Obama said. “Some of them get blown out of proportion. Some of them get magnified. You have to take it as it comes. It was sad to see what happened yesterday, yet I don’t want that to be a distraction about what this campaign is about. The American people are struggling and they need help.”
But it was a distraction.
Obama’s closest friends, including Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt, were at the American Legion Mall to buck up Obama. “Look man,” Nesbitt said, “There’s nothing you can do about Rev. Wright. He’s a suicide politician. He had plastic explosive strapped to his vest and he said ‘I’m blowing up everybody.'”
“Game Change” reported that all of them started cracking up, “mirthful tears streaming down their faces.”
As the thousands of Hoosiers trudged through the rain-slickened streets, David Axelrod appeared, reporting that Obama was 12 points down in Indiana and the race was tightening in North Carolina “Get Axelrod out of here,” Obama said. “He’s a downer.”
Every presidential campaign has such “downer” moments, as does every presidency.
Obama would lose the Indiana primary to Clinton, but by less than a percentage point. The Obama presidency is now enduring the low ebb the candidate felt in Indianapolis.
The U.S. unemployment rate is 9.6 percent. There is no political capital for a second stimulus, boxing in President Obama on the sagging economy. The housing and commercial real estate markets are still ticking time bombs with no clear solution. Democrats have yet to articulate a cogent defense of the complicated health reforms. Where in 2006 he gave life blood into the Indiana campaigns of Baron Hill, Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly, today Obama is their millstone.
Every presidency has these harrowing moments. Nixon had Kent State. For Reagan it was the Beirut Marine barracks bombing; Carter had the Iran hostage rescue disaster; and the Clintons had the death of Vince Foster. For George W. Bush, it was Sept. 11. With the exception of Carter, all rebounded, at least temporarily.
The president is clearly off his “A” game. His Iraq speech was flat, truncated and the cadence was off. Last weekend in Milwaukee, he was reduced to complaining of his opponents by saying, “They treat me like a dog.”
Most Democrats haven’t given up on Obama, but here in Indiana there is a certain dismay that a candidate who was so good at articulating substance in “teaching moments” during the campaign has become so tone deaf.
The question now is, can he snap back in time to help Democrats keep congressional majorities in November? Or will it take a recalibration in January when a Republican Congress comes to town? If that happens, how will he respond to threats of a government shutdown, the appropriations assaults on his health reforms, and the investigations Republicans are now planning?
The American people are “still struggling and they need help,” Obama said in 2008. Does “No Drama” Obama still have such mettle?
(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)