The media generated fanfare surrounding Super Tuesday is over. The candidates, no doubt, have retreated to their hotel bedrooms, have taken off sweat stained shirts, hung up media friendly ties, washed off pancake makeup and now lay in bed, asleep. This may be the one time that they are disconnected from the demands of ambition. It is a tiring, gruelling process to watch: I know that my enthusiasm would flag if I had to generate that much energy and bonhomie every day, on bus rides through Idaho and Virginia, visiting small hamlets and big cities, shaking hands with farmers, small businessmen, party bigwigs. All expect the candidates to speak to them, tell them what’s in it for them. Patience would wear down and tedium would set in if I had to repeat the same stump speech over and over again in reply to the electorate’s demands. And then, having to contend with talk radio hosts one may or may not like, but one has to pretend is an old friend: well, that would perhaps be a step too far. Being asleep in a Holiday Inn or Sheraton, with the soft scent of hotel disinfectant and the gentle whirr of the air conditioning unit in the background, may be the only respite.
Yet, my thoughts are more occupied with current President. I’d like to think that late last night, he was making his way through the halls of the Presidential residence, wearing a navy blue sweatshirt which was faded and frayed from many years of use and a pair of jeans. In one hand, I can imagine him carrying two bottles of beer, perhaps Old Style, reflecting his Chicago roots. In the other, a bowl of popcorn. The halls of the Residence are lit, but the sun has long gone: the reflected light of lamps cannot triumph over the night. He makes his way through the gloom towards his living room. As he arrives, I imagine, he sees Michelle wearing a white silk robe and reading glasses, concentrating on the New York Times crossword.
“Honey,” I can imagine her asking, “what’s an 11 letter word for scoundrel, beginning with R?”
I picture the President catching himself, wanting to say “Republican”, but finding he’s a letter short.
“Rapscallion,” he replies. She writes it down.
Settling onto the cream coloured sofa beside her, I imagine him picking up the television remote: I suspect they’ve invested in a flat screen in the White House, a fairly large one. He has a large number of channels from which to choose, but I suspect he goes from MSNBC to CNN to CNBC: moments when he can relax with a movie are likely rare. I imagine him casting a quick glance at Michelle, remembering when they could go to the cinema without any encumberances, sharing buttered popcorn and full fat Coke without anyone speculating about his health. And then, best of all perhaps, the entwining of butter coated fingers in the darkness.
I can imagine the President sighing at such a memory; Michelle is still locked in concentration. I picture Obama then switching on the television. The clock reads nearly midnight. So late? Perhaps Obama worked later than he realised: he most likely did say good night to Sasha and Malia after reading to them, and took the dog for a brief walk in the darkness. The air was cool and fresh, a hint of Spring’s imminent arrival in the air, and even the accompanying steps of the Secret Service agents didn’t disturb his reverie.
The CNN anchorman is speaking, but I imagine Obama doesn’t hear him. I suspect he’s developed the talent to tune out talk when it isn’t important: it is the only means by which he could be alone with his thoughts in a crowded room. Without that space, how can reflection occur? How can good leadership be possible? When there are facts, he hears them, digests them, tries to work through their meaning. It’s by no means a perfect ability: I imagine he chides himself when he’s missed a critical word or phrase, but having the facility of selective hearing would be a safety mechanism against the perpetual din.
If Obama doesn’t listen, I imagine he at least sees: the picture changes, showing the various candidates on the stump. Romney shaking hands, Gingrich speaking to an audience, Santorum wearing a sweater vest.
Romney, Gingrich, Santorum. Obama shakes his head, I imagine, and can hardly believe his luck. He probably knows that all the promises of massive change from 2008 haven’t been realised, the messages were overcooked, the belief in what was possible became roadkill on the Beltway. The land hasn’t burst forth into bloom, nor the vine become laden with fruit. The seas still rise, the grinding misery of unemployment remains a reality for all too many. I imagine Obama has had to settle for better rather than good.
Romney, Gingrich, Santorum. I picture Obama thinking about his campaign staff positively doing cartwheels into the office in the morning. “All right,” the message is, “we haven’t done all we want to do, but do you really think any of these trio are going to do better?” Perhaps Obama has met all three of his potential rivals: I wonder if he views Romney as a cold-blooded opportunist, Santorum as a wing nut, Gingrich as a has been. The polling data is favourable: the American public has problems imagining any of them behind that big podium either, raising their right hand and taking the oath of office.
Obama, I imagine, then grabs a handful of popcorn. A second term perhaps seemed impossible to him for a time. I suspect he comforted himself with the idea that he could return home, not quite a private citizen again, but able to go to the cinema and entwine butter covered fingers in the darkness once more with some level of privacy. Sasha and Malia would also benefit from a less intrusive press. Perhaps he could go join up with Jimmy Carter on Habitat for Humanity projects. Perhaps he could write another book, and once more take up arms against an old enemy, the blank word processor screen whose emptiness seems to be a stinging rebuke. Perhaps he might go teach, and in between classes, take a walk through a campus strewn with red and gold autumn leaves. There would be much to do.
But Romney, Gingrich, Santorum. Another 4 years locked in the gilded prison of the White House must not only seem possible to him, but probable. Obama knows his history and knows that it’s rare that second terms to be as successful as the first. Clinton was hobbled by scandal and partisan bickering. Reagan was hindered by the signs of old age. Nixon was blasted to pieces by Watergate. Eisenhower was in decline. I picture Obama taking another handful of popcorn. Despite the weakness of the opposition, the campaign trail, he must know, will be harder this time. It was one thing to find every hamlet and city welcoming the message of change, with the only occasional Joe the Plumber standing against him. Now the message is, “Not everything has worked out. But we are doing better. We will continue to do so.” It sounds like a B grade student explaining matters to disappointed parents.
The results start flowing in. Some states for Romney, some for Santorum, Georgia for Gingrich. The Republican battle looks set to go on. Obama perhaps thinks that he won’t be campaigning against someone who has the full backing of his fellow Republicans, rather, he’ll contend with someone who is a half hearted choice, a compromise: their base, no doubt, feels that slight tug of hesitation, the lack of enthusiasm which means their man is weakened. It’s in that space in which victory turns from probable to likely. Another 4 years.
“I’m going out,” I imagine Obama saying. Michelle nods, returns to her crossword. I picture Obama walking through the corridors, his long ranging strides covering ground quickly, even though his intent is to linger. He passes portraits of famous figures, FDR with his cigarette holder, TR grinning at the ages, Lincoln looking somber and reflective. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum. Another 4 years, a harder 4 years, before he can return home and leave his dirty socks on the floor without it being a national punchline, butter covered fingers can entwine in the darkness and Sasha and Malia have privacy again. But before that end, he may muse, there is a long way to go, a call to serve, a duty to perform. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum. There will be 4 years of arguments and phone calls and fights and bills that sink without a trace. There will be international crises. There will be people killed. I imagine Obama’s hands shaking slightly at the thought. No doubt, he receives briefings on terrorist activity, the development of nuclear technology in Iran, Russia’s shenangians, China’s rise, Europe’s finances. 4 more years of this: no wonder the hair at his temples is greying. But Romney, Santorum, Gingrich: he’s called at this moment to do what he does. But is it possible he’ll get through it?
I imagine him pausing at a window, looking out at the White House grounds. Perhaps he whispers more to himself than anyone who might be listening, “Yes, we can.”