When Barack Obama was still in his 20s and ran for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, he won not least because he was able to attract conservatives as well as liberals. His capacity to project a receptive political personality attracted students who, although they saw themselves as ideological opponents, thought they could get a fair hearing from him. That habit of mind, which Obama made so conspicuous in the 2008 campaign, came up hard against the realities of U.S. politics as they are lived in the furious here and the partisan now. During the health care battle, Obama, after tireless romancing, got zero Republican support and had to spend political capital just to keep his own party in line. That urge to convince, to persuade, to draw in political opponents, will be taxed far more profoundly in the coming year. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows no evidence of behaving like a member of the Harvard Law Review editorial board. The ability to coordinate the wildly varying political interests of China, India, Russia, Brazil and the rest on issues like nuclear proliferation, human rights and climate change will not likely be affected by the old charms. The gifts of political personality have their distinct limits.
Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker and author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama