It's no secret that the messianic hopes Barack Obama once inspired have steadily given way to disillusion, and an ever-deepening sense of unease about the direction the country is heading.
The president's critics are tempted to say they told us so -- and they give in to that temptation all too often. Instead of rallying around a serious alternative, which may explain why no such candidate has yet to emerge from the pack.
As for the president's supporters, they sound more defensive than proud. It's a familiar sound -- that of a presidency losing steam, and maybe hope.
You don't hear much about hope out of the White House these days, or for that matter change and audacity, either. Those old words now tend to be used only ironically where this administration is concerned. They used to be a slogan, remember? Now they've become a wry judgment on this president's failure to deliver on the hopes he once raised.
And it was all going to be so simple, too. What heady days those were. But now it's as if the country had returned to sobriety after an intoxicating fling with a media star. You can feel the letdown. The polls reflect it, too, for what they're worth, which is not much. We can be a fickle people, our mood changing in an instant. Besides, a president who was a slave to the polls wouldn't be much of a president. A great campaigner, maybe, but not much of a president.
The results of last year's midterm elections were scarcely a vote of confidence in the president's party, or his leadership. And nothing much seems to have changed since. If there is a single word to describe the spirit of this administration just now, it is entropy. The new has worn off, and revealed ... nobody is quite sure.
More and more, there doesn't seem to be any there there. What, besides his own re-election, does the man stand for? It's not easy to say, and it is this lack of definition that has come to define him. Which is not a good sign in a candidate who would lead. That is, if he's ever been interested in leading -- as opposed to moderating a national conversation and group therapy session.
Barack Obama may or may not have retained his personal popularity, but it's hard to escape the impression that his presidency is winding down -- at home and abroad. The feeling grows that it's time for a change from the change he ushered in, or was going to.
In the battle over the budget, the president (who's more of a presidential candidate these days) can be counted on to play the Class War card sooner and/or later. But even at his most strident, maybe especially at his most strident, he comes across as ineffectual. You can almost hear the steam going out of his presidency.
Yet there are still some folks out there he manages to drive crazy, and, strangely enough, they may represent his best chance for re-election. For if the country isn't happy with Mr. Obama, it's not about to embrace the kind of nutcases who've come out of the woodwork to oppose him -- the mixed assortment of birthers, truthers and other such who view him not as a failed president but as some kind of demonic plant. Those folks are scary.
The other day I spotted a bumper so covered with stickers you could barely see the chrome underneath. Together, they expressed enough suspect sentiments to sink any presidential candidate who would embrace them. For example:
Impeach the Muslim
Global Warming Is a Hoax
Obama Lied/America Died
Put all those together and you've got Glenn Beck on one of his wilder forays into conspiracy theory -- the kind of thing once confined to late-night radio but now more and more mainstream. You'd think the John Birch Society had been reborn.
Recall all the virulence directed at the last president, aim it in the opposite political direction, and you've got the flavor of the thing. It's quite a show, but it's not much of a campaign strategy. Nuttism seldom is.
No matter what unease this president inspires, it is nothing compared to the distaste this kind of wild-eyed sloganeering does. Hysteria is not an appealing quality. Not in a practical-minded country always tending toward consensus. We may love to gossip, but most of us aren't about to vote the way we talk in the barber shop or beauty salon, where it's understood that anything said is 25 percent off.
As the president launches his re-election campaign on a grand scale, at least financially, Republican presidential hopefuls compete to see which one can sound more like Ronald Reagan as they try to stir up their party's base.
But as venerated as the Gipper was, and deserves to be, this may be a time when the country is looking for a different kind of presidential candidate. By now Americans may yearn not for a Reagan but an Eisenhower, someone who might not be glamorous, but who can be trusted. A candidate who has principles but isn't angry about them. A Mitt Romney rather than a Donald Trump. Think of how attractive a Romney-Petraeus ticket might be -- if the alternative were Obama and (Lord help us) Joe Biden again.
Americans may have grown more than a tad sick of ideology by now. Having overdosed on the politics of celebrity and glamor, we might happily settle for just some competence, clarity, trust and good will. And constancy of purpose. Whoever can provide those qualities could look mighty good in 2012. They may not be dramatic qualities, but the American electorate has had more than enough drama of late.
Columnist Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.