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The Republican inability to settle on a standard-bearer is not surprising because this election was always going to be about President Barack Obama.

In a way, Republicans, in their never-ending search for the one candidate who can beat Obama have validated this thesis. By making the primary process about who can beat Obama, rather than about who might make the best president, the GOP has unconsciously framed the debate as a referendum on him. This primary is so long and awkward in part because every candidate just wants to run against Obama and is unwilling or unable to make a positive case for himself.

This election is about Obama like our politics, for over five years now, has been about Obama — his promises first, then his governance.

If this is true, it means several things. It means Republican candidates may come and go, and their critiques of Obama will shift and change depending on what looks like the best way to hurt him. It also means that the prevailing view of Obama — whatever it may be come November — will determine the election.

There are three basic ways of looking at the president: One is that he is a radical — a man committed to fundamental and intentional change in the relationship between Americans and their government and between America and the world. In this view, he wants to create an America where government takes the place of business, family and community structure as the granter and guarantor of the American dream. In this view, his health care law is a hostile takeover of the American economy.

An intermediate view is that Obama is a liberal — not significantly different from other liberal presidents, except in the extent to which he was unprepared for the magnitude of the job he would have to do. Instead of a radical, this view sees Obama as a conventional liberal at a time where conventional politics and policies were not enough. This Obama does not hate the U.S., but loves it differently.

This Obama shouldn’t be re-elected. His missteps on economic policy, his willingness to restructure the economy to achieve social goals, his inability to change the terms of the debate in Washington — these are all reasons why he has failed in his first term and doesn’t deserve re-election.

Finally, you could see Obama as a shrewd and temperate president, who has been betrayed by the tone and tenor of our politics, but has governed well in difficult circumstances against the constant and angry chorus of opposition from an obstinate and apoplectic Republican Party. This Obama deserves re-election and will win on the strength of his record.

The truth about the president is somewhere in the middle. He’s not a radical opponent of American values, nor is he a noble victim of fate and circumstance.

What’s concerning is that Republicans, in their haste and their distaste for the president, have bounced from critique to critique and from candidate to candidate, cementing for Obama the votes of those who look at him as a flawed president, unready, unsuccessful but ultimately a decent man who is better than the alternatives the Republicans have offered.


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