Four years ago, Barack Obama won the White House by convincing his supporters that he was not just another candidate, but a figure above and beyond politics.
In 2012, after a term marked by partisan warfare and economic malaise, that vision now looks excessively naive. Obama’s supporters, especially the young, have lost their innocence about the power of idealism in politics, and about the possibility that a leader can stay above the fray.
Many of them now wish that Obama was not above politics, but right in the thick of it — using fair means or foul to get his agenda through Congress, attacking his opponents instead of retreating into his cerebral detachment. In short, they wish that Obama had a little more in him of Willie Stark, the ruthlessly effective politician at the center of the greatest novel ever written about American politics: “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.
Stark, the charismatic and sinister governor known to one and all as “the Boss,” is based on Huey Long, who during the Depression became the virtual dictator of Louisiana and a potent national presence. Like his model, Stark is a demagogue, able to whip up a frightening fervor in his audience: “There is nothing like the roar of a crowd when it swells up, all of a sudden at the same time, out of the thing which is in every man in the crowd but is not himself.”