He has aged in office and when he strides onto the stage, there is less spring in his step. The crowds that once adored him now watch him with an appraising eye. The audacity of hope has been replaced by the burden of hope. As the first person of the African-American race to win the White House, he has carried a burden of expectation no person could ever fulfill. He tried to make his story the American story. In no other country, he said, was his story even possible. Americans voted for him in 2008 because they wanted to believe that his story was theirs.
If this election is close, it is because his story didn't turn out to be theirs. In a brutal recession, the success he achieved in his own life remained painfully out of reach for millions of those who chose, in 2008, to dream with him.
The election is close because inequality is gnawing away at the solidarity – the sense that we are all in this together – that sustains a politics of hope. It is close, too, because his standing, his very right to be president, has been contested every moment of his presidency – by the so-called birthers, by those who pronounce his middle name Hussein with a sneer and by the super-rich who have spent millions to take him down.
Their best efforts will make it close, but it ought not to be close. Between a candidate who saved the auto industry and one who would have put it into disorderly bankruptcy, it ought to be no contest. Between a candidate who fought to give his uninsured fellow citizens health care and one who wants to turn health care for the elderly into a voucher program, it ought to be a shoo-in. Between a candidate who used the power of government to save a country from depression and a candidate who wants to starve government of the capacity to do good, it ought to be a walk in the park.
It will be close because raising the banner of hope in hard times was bound to expose him to the furies of disillusion. It will be close because he has weaknesses. He can look as if he's not fighting hard enough for the people who believed in him. It will be close because there are divisions of race and class that not even his rhetoric can lift his fellow citizens above.
But the prize now lies within his grasp. The 2012 election will be one that any politician would want to win. A slowly reviving U.S. economy will give the victor the means to do what has to be done: cutting military spending, raising taxes on the super-rich, pouring money into education and infrastructure and beginning to wean the U.S. economy off carbon. He has a chance to get these things done, because the hard experience of power has made him a better president. Tougher and less naive now, he's earned the right to be the one the people thank when the United States gets back on its feet.
Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.