Every president, goes the cliche, campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. But when the level of poetry is as high as Barack Obama's was in 2008, the sudden move to prose is jarring. And no matter how many historic achievements Barack Obama chalked up, there was a significant group of people, many young, many avid readers of political blogs, whose barometer for President Obama lay in how good a policy "felt."
So it didn't matter when he achieved what no President succeeded in achieving in 40 years: getting hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies through Congress for health care. The base was upset at Obama because he couldn't get more than 53 Democratic votes for a more ambitious extension of Medicare. Never mind that Joe Lieberman and Democratic senators from red states that Obama lost by 20 points would never have voted for it. Policy sausagemaking turned these voters off, and Obama seemed to be just another politician.
It didn't matter that the President ended the war in Iraq, as he had promised to, when every other candidate running for President, including his major Democratic opponent, ran as defense hawks.
It didn't matter that he increased student loans, got corrupt banks out of the process and used those billions in savings for more student programs. It didn't matter that he increased Pell Grants.
If you read comments at the Advocate.com over the last three years, you came to realize that it didn't matter what Obama did on gay rights, it wasn't enough. When he succeeded in getting the federal hate crimes bill passed, it was insincere. When he said he wouldn't repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell by executive order, it was a betrayal. When he finally got the legislation through, he wasn't a true partner, because he wasn't for gay marriage. That would continue to be true when he stopped defending DOMA in federal courts. Never mind that every single one of these moves was a essential building blocks in what was a classic Lincolnian strategy.
For that very large group of Americans who are indifferent to policy but vote for something "refreshing," that feels good, that "feels like change," the substantive, important changes Obama made to the funding of programs that directly affected them, foreign policy, staffing, the very makeup of the US Supreme Court, these were all irrelevant.
And that is why yesterday matters. Yes, it was historic, yes it was courageous. But more importantly, the President has restored his brand. His profound policy accomplishments went unseen by the many Americans in the center-left who are comfortable enough not to be affected too much by government. But to them, this one matters. It is historic. It's a first. And it's cutting edge.
Even these detached voters know that the President made a decision for individual rights at a politically perilous moment. Because they are comfortable, and excited more by symbols than other concrete achievements, they will now contribute to the President's campaign, even though this President deserved and needed their money long, long before.
So hooray for the President. This decision would have been a political no-brainer by 2016. But this is 2012, and it isn't one yet. North Carolina is probably lost, and Iowa may be far more competitive now. But the President has gained an intangible. The man who staked his presidency on another risky call, signing off on the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, staked his re-election on extending the promise of American equality to a group that was far from loyal to him. It was the right thing to do, and he has gained immeasurably. Barack Obama is once again the candidate of hope to every Democrat.
But the truth is, he had been all along.