More than a half century ago, after he defeated Richard Nixon in one of the closest presidential races of all time, John Kennedy was persuaded to fly from his Palm Beach retreat to the vice president’s Key Biscayne redoubt as a symbol of national unity. The two men were far closer than President Obama and Mitt Romney are, but still there was some awkwardness in the gesture, which had been cooked up by former Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and former President Herbert Hoover.
The two, both Navy men who went to Congress in 1946, met amid palm trees and flashing photographers’ lights. Perhaps no one noticed then what is so obvious now from the aging footage of the event: The victor, whose breakthrough came in the first presidential debate that autumn, wore a dark suit; the vanquished wore a gray suit, tantalizingly like the one that allowed him to fade into the background so disastrously in that televised debate.
The president-elect began with a question that nagged at him: “How the hell did you carry Ohio?”
Perhaps in a few days, President Obama and Mr. Romney will meet. The nation needs a robust symbol of unity far more in 2012, when the two candidates differed on so much and assembled coalitions that opposed each other with such anger and distrust, than it did in 1960. President-elect Kennedy and outgoing Vice President Nixon were — despite the folklore that portrays the contest as a titanic struggle between bitter rivals and competing world views — more alike than different.
The just-completed campaign will be remembered for the struggle for Ohio, and for its intensity, nastiness, and price tag. The two combatants fought fiercely. They obscured their own records and distorted each others’. Their allies portrayed their opponents as monsters in a struggle of good versus evil. In that, as in so much else they said, they were wrong.
The nation whispered that it wanted to continue on the Obama path, but shouted that it wanted to do so with a different pace, in a different tone, with a different result.
Now Mr. Obama is no longer the man of hope and change, but a scarred and realistic President whose people gave him a second chance in the hope he might change.
President Obama has a new beginning. But he will have difficulty claiming a mandate, and the animating question of American politics is what he will do with his new beginning and what he must do to govern with anything approaching effectiveness.
The heavy turnout, perhaps a result of one of the many unintended consequences of the Citizens United decision, is almost certainly an indication of the urgency and intensity Americans feel about the problems that Mr. Obama didn’t tackle or solve in his first chance: slow economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment.
There are terrifying consequences of the imminent fiscal cliff, of the unaddressed entitlement crisis, and of the smoldering danger that is apparent in every household but reported in almost no news outlet: insufficient pensions and savings to carry hard-working, middle-class Americans into retirement.
Mr. Obama’s victory was muted compared with his 2008 triumph. His supporters will say that this is the natural consequence of both expectations that were deeply unrealistic and of an economic crisis that was alarmingly persistent. But Mr. Obama was elected the first time on the jet stream of optimism. Even his strongest admirers concede privately that Mr. Obama soared as a candidate but stalled as a President.
In awarding him a second term, Americans changed the terms of engagement. Not so much four more years, they seemed to say, as four different years.
If Americans felt otherwise, they would have elected Mr. Romney, or given President Obama a bigger victory. Despite the numbers, this was a grudging victory, delivered by a nation that no longer wants its leaders to hold grudges.
In the last day of his last campaign, President Obama returned to Iowa, where his unlikely rise to power began with an astonishing caucus victory in the winter of 2008. He spoke of his “movement for change.” Hours later, the voters’ verdict indicated that Americans do want change, just as they did in 2008, but also a change in the way the President conducts business. The margin of victory this time, smaller than it was four years ago, is a signal that the chief executive’s performance was acceptable, but only barely so.
Two months after that remarkable 1960 meeting in Key Biscayne, newly inaugurated President Kennedy, seemingly awed by the challenges he faced, stood before both houses of Congress and delivered a sobering State of the Union message.
“We cannot afford to waste idle hours and empty plants while awaiting the end of the recession,” the 35th president said. “We must show the world what a free economy can do — to reduce unemployment, to put unused capacity to work, to spur new productivity, and to foster higher economic growth within a range of sound fiscal policies and relative price stability.”
So too must President Obama’s America.
The questions are how President Obama, flush with fresh victory but sobered by his challenge, will change, and whether Washington can change with him.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org