Michael Gerson

The failure to change, or even to challenge, the culture of Washington rankles on right and left. Here is Lawrence Lessig writing in The Nation: "Obama will leave the presidency, whether in 2013 or 2017, with Washington essentially intact and the movement he inspired betrayed."

The height of Obama's political fall is measured by how awkward the echoes of his past rhetoric now seem. When he said recently, "Let's reach for hope," it was indeed a stretch. It sounded like an aging pop singer, grown paunchy and out of tune, stumbling through an old favorite. Obama is pursued by the memories of his own promise.

Politicians have been known to say one thing and do another. And high ideals and high rhetoric always create the potential for hypocrisy. But the disappointment with Obama is especially acute. He won office by providing new voters with intoxicating hopes. America was tipsy with idealism -- resulting in a particularly difficult hangover. Few presidencies have been built so consciously or completely on an idealistic brand, with its own distinctive language and icons. But this "new kind of politics" has proved conventional in its conduct, predictable in its content and exceptional only for the depth of division it has inspired. The Obama administration is presented, not just with the prospect of electoral repudiation, but with a question: How will it adjust to the death of the belief that gave it birth?

For some, this is merely a confirmation of their pre-existing view of politics -- that idealism is a fraud, that rhetorical inspiration is a con. It is true that many politicians do not improve upon closer acquaintance -- that no man is a hero to his valet. But a nation of valets would lose its capacity for great purposes. So it should be a source of sadness that Obama, for many, has become a source of cynicism.

All politicians fall -- but not from such a height.

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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