Barack Obama can't get enough of the Ugandan Little League team. As Air Force One takes off from another campaign rally in Ohio, the President settles into his airborne conference room, gum lodged in the back of his mouth, with ESPN's live coverage of 12-year-olds' World Series baseball on the flat screen. He raves to his staff about the story line, an up-from-obscurity fable of barefoot kids from East Africa playing in central Pennsylvania. There is, after all, something familiar about the narrative arc: long-shot outsiders, international roots, hope, aspiration, change.
The truth is, televised sports remains Obama's primary diversion these days, his escape from nearly four years of unrelenting trial more severe than anyone expected. His hair went white as he steered the country clear of a second Great Depression, struggled with 8% unemployment, wound down two wars, sent bombers to Libya, ordered the death of Osama bin Laden, rewrote banking rules and pushed through the largest new entitlement program since 1965. But he always tried to have dinner with Michelle and the girls and to catch SportsCenter.
A few weeks earlier, at one of the Sunday campaign-strategy sessions in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Obama gave his top political pros grief for all the spots they were dropping in his Northern Virginia media market. "Guys, I understand why you are doing this," he said, in a characteristic bit of ribbing that his golf partners know well. "But I got to tell you, the only respite I have is watching sports and the Olympics, and then my ads come on. Can't I have any refuge?"
Talking to the President, it's easy to get the sense that he would prefer a politics that worked more like organized sports, with the clean justice of objective referees and rules designed to elevate the best performer from a level playing field. He embraces the challenge of policy, craves high-minded political debate and hungers to win. But four years after rising from obscurity to conquer the highest office in the land, he is still struggling to adapt to the shifting terrain of American politics--the quirks, eccentricities and passions of both the electorate and his Republican foes. Given the choice, he would probably turn off the campaign ads, get rid of the $10 million checks he never seems to attract, marginalize the horse-race media and dispose of the partisan furies that drive people to what he sees as mistaken conclusions. "If he could sit down with each person in America to explain his policies," says his campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, "he believes he would win the day."
But that's not how this game works, and it's not how his own slash-and-burn campaign is approaching 2012. He won the presidency in 2008 by presenting himself as a vessel for the nation's dreams, a Rorschach test for a country ready to believe again in its future. Four years later, he is a fixed thing, a person with actual successes and failures, though there is disagreement about which are which and what they represent. On a single city block, you can find people who know him as a savior, a soured bet, a socialist or six other things in between. What everyone agrees on is that things are not as they were.