Few Americans consider themselves bigger than the presidency but Obama might be one of them. The man in the Oval Office, argues Toby Harnden, may already be preparing for a role as a post-president in a post-American world.
Published: 9:00PM BST 21 Aug 2010
Barack Obama may already be preparing for a role as a post-president in a post-American world. Photo: AP
When David Plouffe, President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, wrote recently that his former boss was "not concerned with his re-election", there was predictable scepticism.
After all, it has long been a truism that every politician wants to cling to power and a reality that presidential campaigns are planned years in advance. Pronouncements about not looking at polls and concentrating on getting things done are, moreover, standard fare from poll-driven, election-obsessed politicians and their apparatchiks.
In this case, however, Plouffe may inadvertently be onto something. Almost everything Obama does these days suggests that he doesn't care much about being re-elected. Strange as it might seem, perhaps he wants to be a one-term president.
Obama was elected in 2008 at an extraordinary moment in American politics. Suddenly, this charismatic figure, elected to the Senate without serious opposition in 2004 and without any executive experience, was catapulted into the White House.
His presidential bid had been based on the power of his life story and his ability with the spoken word. Doubtless he was as surprised as anyone else that he pulled it off. Governing has been altogether more difficult for him and there are signs he is already tiring of it.
Obama's intervention on the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" issue is a case in point. There was no need for him to get involved - the Islamic community centre two blocks from the 9/11 site is unlikely to get built and there was no political advantage in his making a statement.
What he said about religious freedom was typically Obama - high-minded, principled and legalistic. He is, after all, a former constitutional law professor. What his words lacked were any real empathy with what Americans felt and practical considerations about resolving the issue - never mind the political downside for him.
Doubtless he has been advised to prove he is "connected" to ordinary Americans by doing things like be seen attending church and taking "regular" holidays. But Obama seems happy to act as a European-style secularist, vacation in Martha's Vineyard and send his daughters to one of America's most exclusive private schools.
Obama does not suffer for self doubt. He has long seemed so convinced of his own virtue that to question his motives is illogical. Increasingly, his pronouncements carry the tone of one who believes those who disagree are stupid or bigoted.
Before departing for Martha's Vineyard last week, Obama spent three days on the campaign trail raising money and support for Democratic mid-term election candidates. Don't give in to fear," he said in Milwaukee. "Let's reach for hope."
It was a message that worked once but is unlikely to appeal this time, with America in the grip of a recession, unemployment still stubbornly close to 10 percent and blame-it-on-Bush rhetoric wearing very thin.
Obama is, however, at his best in these settings. He has the crowd hanging on his every word and he is not dealing with grubby political realities or objectionable opponents. Perhaps they are a reminder for him of simpler times.
They might also be a glimpse of the future. For Obama, the crowning moment of his presidency have been speeches abroad - the statement in Strasbourg that America had been "dismissive and arrogant", the address to the Muslim world from Cairo, the acceptance in Oslo of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Berlin in 2008, Obama cast himself as a "citizen of the world". He has dismissed the bedrock notion of American exceptionalism by describing it, also in Strasbourg, as little more than narrow patriotism. Elite opinion among liberal Ivy League types - of which Obama is the embodiment - holds that we are already living in a post-American world.
There are few Americans who see themselves as bigger than the presidency but Obama could well be one of them. In 2008, Obama showed little appetite for the down-and-dirty aspects of political campaigning.
When things got tough against Hillary Clinton, he all but conceded the final Democratic primaries and let the clock run out. Against John McCain, he developed a campaign plan and refused to deviate from it. McCain was level in the polls when the US economy imploded, handing Obama a relatively comfortable victory.
Obama is the first black American president, an established author, multi-millionaire and acclaimed figure beyond American shores.
It seems highly unlikely that Obama will decide not to run in 2012. But he might well be calculating that a embarking post-presidential role as the leading global thinker in the post-American world as a Republican successor enters office is more attractive than being sullied by the political compromises and manoeuvrings necessary to win.