Published for www.commentarymagazine.com, June 27th, 2012

In a campaign event in Atlanta, President Obama employed this argument on his behalf:

I’m not perfect and I’ll never be a perfect president but I told you that I’d always tell you what I thought, I’d always tell you what I believe and most importantly I told you I’d wake up every single day and fight as hard as I knew how for you. That I’d fight as hard as I knew how for all those folks who were doing the right thing out there. All those people who’ve kept the faith with this country and you know what? I’ve kept that promise. I have kept that promise. I believe in you. I hope you still believe in me.

These words, while banal (and somewhat plaintive), are also instructive. A general rule in politics is that when a chief executive says he hasn’t been a “perfect president,” it means he’s been dramatically less than perfect. It’s analogous to John Edwards claiming he hasn’t been a perfect husband.

A second rule worth bearing in mind is this: When an incumbent’s case for re-election rests in large part on the fact that he wakes up every single day fighting hard for the American people, he’s in trouble. It means the incumbent can’t make a compelling defense of his record or sketch out a compelling second-term agenda. And the promises he says he’s kept don’t have to do with improving the objective conditions of the nation; they have to do with a subjective claim of good intentions.

“I tried hard” and “I meant well” are explanations a parent might take into account if his/her son failed in his/her Algebra I course. As a re-election slogan, however, it leaves something to be desired.

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