Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- In 1980, Bill Clinton was defeated for re-election as Arkansas governor, making him the youngest ex-governor in America. According to one account, "Clinton sank into a deep funk. Wandering the streets of Little Rock, he'd stop to question strangers: 'Why do you think I lost?'"

Taking the advice of his campaign consultant Dick Morris, Clinton apologized for past mistakes and transitioned to the political center. He was re-elected governor two years later.

Clinton's most astute biographer, David Maraniss, says "the central theme of Clinton's life is the repetitive cycle of loss and recovery." Following his midterm electoral thumping in 1994, President Clinton, again advised by Morris, scaled back his ambitions, narrowly focused on middle-class tax cuts, education and the environment and gradually restored his political fortunes.

With President Obama likely facing a political setback in November, what can we expect his response to be?

It is hard to tell, because Obama has only the thinnest history of loss. In 2004, he represented the 13th District in the Illinois Senate. Within five years, he was president of the United States, Time's Person of the Year and a Noble laureate.

But Obama did lose one election. In 2000, he unwisely attempted to unseat Bobby Rush for a seat in the House of Representatives, receiving only 31 percent of the primary vote. A reporter who covered the race, Edward McClelland, says that Obama was "wooden and condescending," characterized by "braininess," "haughtiness" and a "sense of entitlement."

"He was the elitist Ivy League Democrat to top them all," McClelland wrote in an article for Salon. Obama's manner did not play very well on Chicago's South Side.

In McClelland's account, Obama did learn some lessons from failure. He became a more focused and collegial state legislator. But far from moderating his views, Obama developed a passion for expanded health coverage and strongly opposed the Iraq War. "I was impressed that he finally believed in something," wrote McClelland. "He was a big-government liberal, no weaseling about it." In addition, Obama grew "into the character he was born to play: the great uniter who can bring together old and young, black and white, Democrat and Republican."

It was always the most precarious of political balancing acts -- the liberal uniter. It worked brilliantly as a campaign theme. It has not survived the realities of governing. Obama's liberalism has provoked an intense national debate on the role and size of government, making him a deeply polarizing figure -- an impression, once created, that is hard to reverse.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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