Before running for political office, Barack Obama was a stubborn dreamer with a literary bent. Mostly he dreamed of living a better life story, even if that meant scrubbing away the blemishes of reality. Part of his appeal was the way he emerged from adversity unsullied. He was better than that. And with his help, we could be too. That was Obama’s pitch to America. He would allow all of us to escape the mundane reality of politics, to live that better story with him, and erase the messiness of the past and present—just as he had done for himself.
But as Senior Editor Peter Suderman observes, the power to imagine is not the power to accomplish. Vague, high-minded goals get sullied when translated into specific, practical policies. Nearly a full term of a moribund economy has turned the words hope and change into bitter punch lines. As time passes, the suspicion grows that the same narrative gift that made Obama so interesting and fresh in the mid-1990s contained the seeds of his failure as a president. Storytelling, it turns out, is no substitute for governance, and nothing ruins a promising writer faster than the practice of wielding power.