2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President

The campaign wasn’t pretty, and the economy worse. but he reasserted himself as a potent architect for a changing America

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Nadav Kander for TIME
Nadav Kander for TIME

But the yellow pad he began to fill after the election was not for himself or his next memoir. Instead, he wanted to work out what he should try to get done in the next four years, beyond his inbox and legislative to-do list for the next nine months. The immediate goals are clear: a major push on immigration reform and a way to lower the medium-term deficit through a combination of raising tax rates, reforming the tax code and finding some temporary truce between the parties on entitlements. He gathered his staffers for a “40,000-foot” view of what was possible.

They soon discovered that the yellow pad included some things spoken of only rarely during the campaign: dealing with the problem of climate change, for instance, emerged as a major thread, despite all the money the campaign had spent in southeastern Ohio praising Obama’s commitment to coal. He spoke of increasing opportunities for early-childhood education and finding new ways to lessen the burden of college costs. The long lines that forced millions to wait for hours to vote led him to talk about a broad sweep of potential electoral reforms, which would likely include a popular push on campaign-finance reform and new legislation to force states to improve ballot access. He also said he wanted to look at the criminal-justice system. “There’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system, that is involved in nonviolent crimes,” he tells TIME. “I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also, there are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.”

(PHOTOS: Obama’s College Years)

Prison reform won’t become a top priority of his Administration, but his interest in it signals his determination to expand the boundaries of what a second-term presidency might be. When two states, Washington and Colorado, legalized marijuana for adults in November, Obama decided that federal law-enforcement resources should not be deployed to bust individuals who are complying with state law. “When it comes to drug enforcement, big-time drug dealers, folks who are preying on our kids, those who are engaging in violence — that has to be our focus,” he said.

In the wake of the killings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Obama asked if the country and its President had done enough in his first term to deal with mass shootings. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no, we’re not doing enough,” he said before promising to “use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental-health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” He had made similar vows before, after other shootings. But this one affected him more. Never had he cast the issue so starkly as a question of moral and political courage. Never before had he so clearly reproached himself for failing to take action.

(MORE: ‘These Tragedies Must End’: Obama Promises Change at Newtown Vigil, but Can He Deliver?)

White House aides draw a distinction between what is possible legislatively and what they can do rhetorically and through public education. It’s not just what Obama gets passed, they muse; it’s the legacy he leaves for the next occupant of the Oval Office. “You recognize you’re not going to arrive with — you’ll never arrive at that promised land, and whatever seeds you plant now may bear fruit many years later,” Obama says. Only time will tell just how he fulfills that vision.

Which is O.K. with the President. In mid-November, White House aides arranged a postelection screening of the new Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, inviting the director and much of the cast, including actors Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the 16th President, and Sally Field, who plays his wife. Obama called the experience of watching the horse trading, corruption and compromise that allowed the passage of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery, “incredibly powerful.” For Axelrod, who attended the screening and who fought alongside the President through the disappointments and triumphs of the first few years, the story echoed the bruising and at times chaotic battle for health care reform, something he mentioned to his boss.

“Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs, and there are compromises,” Obama says of his favorite President. “Anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect.”

Obama says he long ago decided that he should not compare himself to Lincoln. But he nonetheless begins his second term with a better sense of what is possible in his job as well as what is not, something Lincoln struggled with as well. “You do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways,” Obama says. “But what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction.” He has earned the right to set that direction and has learned from experience how to move the country. After four of the most challenging years in the nation’s history, his chance to leave office as a great President who was able to face crises and build a new majority coalition remains within reach.

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