When President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address Tuesday night, the nation will implicitly consider the state of the president himself. Six years ago, he was defined by the word “hope.” He had arrived on the scene as a political innocent, and many who voted for him inevitably projected onto the blank screen of his future a cluster of aspirations that had more to do with a generation’s longing than with likely trends going forward.
But six years on, in many important ways, Barack Obama has become a figure of American disappointment, with last week’s inexplicable failure to properly honor the trauma of France only a latest instance of mystifying solecism. Obama’s political and personal enemies never saw him as a force for good, yet by now even many of his once-passionate admirers admit to a profound disenchantment. The shattering of an illusion tied to a figure of such intelligence, deeply rooted liberal purpose, and evident public virtue necessarily involves a further — and perhaps dangerous — disillusionment with democratic will itself.