It was the commitment at the core of Barack Obama's candidacy, the most important promise he made to the American people: He would unify a divided nation. Again and again, he vowed to repair the political breach. To end the bitter polarization of American life, to do away with "slash-and-burn" politics that "tear us apart instead of bringing us together" -- above all else, that was the hope and the change he offered.
At every milestone in Obama's journey to the White House -- from the keynote address in Boston that put him on the national radar screen to his inaugural address in 2009 -- he held himself out as a healer. Skeptics might note that partisanship and rancor were as old as American democracy itself, but Obama insisted that would change when he was president. The toxic style of politics wasn't inescapable. Give me the highest office in the land, he assured a rapturous crowd in Ohio two days before the 2008 election, and "we can end it once and for all."
Millions of voters believed him. They took to heart his vow to transfigure American public life. They looked forward to the uplifting leadership he promised. What they got instead was the most polarizing and divisive presidency in modern times. The civility and goodwill that were to be Obama's touchstone? "I haven't fully accomplished that," he concedes. "Haven't even come close."