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Noemie Emery: Obama the transformer? Not really

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Flush with success that's less than they think it, Obama's fans once again call him a transformational figure, up in a class with Reagan and Roosevelt -- one of the singular figures who turns things around. Well, he is trying, but it may not work out as planned.

For it all to work out, three critical things must happen: He has to have the bulk of the country behind him, he has to address the really big issues, and he must be in sync with the currents of history. Has he, and is he? Not really. On each of these things, there are reasons for wonder, and many more reasons for doubt.

Roosevelt and Reagan, as history tells us, first won with comfortable margins and went on four years later to win in huge blowouts, having expanded their vote totals by millions. Each swept all but two small and low-population states (if you deem our nation's capital a state). Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932 with 57.4 percent of the vote, carried 42 states and won 472 votes in the Electoral College. Four years later, he shellacked Alfred M. Landon 61-37, taking every state but Vermont and New Hampshire, and won the Electoral College 523-8. In 1980, Reagan beat Carter 51-41 in a three-way election, won the Electoral College 489-49 and won 44 states. In 1984, he whipped Walter Mondale 59-41, won 525 votes in the Electoral College and took every state except Mondale's own.

Obama began in 2008 on a more modest level, with a seven-point win over McCain in the general, having won a record 69 million-plus votes. But in 2012, he dropped three and a half million votes from his original total, lost votes in all of the swing states he carried and edged Mitt Romney by four -- a solid but unremarkable triumph. It was smaller than Truman's five-point edge over Dewey, Eisenhower's second win over Stevenson, Nixon's landslide over George McGovern and Bill Clinton's nine-point destruction of Bob Dole. Never before has any president, let alone a transformative one, been re-elected while losing support. Perhaps he's not a transformer at all.

Reagan and Roosevelt addressed the big issues -- which are the real reasons that people have governments -- such as unemployment and war. In his inaugural, Obama bypassed these to focus such on critical matters as green jobs and gay marriage.

Reagan and Roosevelt fit the needs of their times, which were to expand the government's scope and then to contract it, and to face the threat of menacing forces, which threatened our safety and global stability. With respect to the first, Obama wants to expand government further when the evidence is clear it is already unsustainable. And as for the second, his wish is to "lead from behind." Reagan and Roosevelt dominated their times, with Roosevelt gaining House seats in his first midterm election and Reagan, in the midst of a downturn, losing just 26. Obama suffered a midterm tsunami, losing 65 seats in the House and having a disaster on the state level that was still more important: He now faces a phalanx of 30 Republican governors, many from states that twice voted for him, moving their states in a rightward direction, at the same time that he, on the federal level, is moving as fast as he can to the left.

This never happened to Reagan or Roosevelt.

Which way does the country want to be moving? Who knows?

Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."

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Noemie Emery

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The Washington Examiner