For Chris Matthews, the Thrill Is Gone

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It seems to be Democratic buyer’s remorse week here at TIME, with a poll on Hillary Clinton’s robust but-never-gunna-happen 2012 presidential prospects and a piece by Chris Matthews lamenting Obama’s first term in this week’s print edition. The Matthews piece, adapted from his forthcoming book on JFK, is one part epitaph for New Frontier liberalism, one part nostalgia for the Kennedy ’60s, and one part critique of a President whose leadership Matthews thinks failed to deliver on the promise of the candidate in 2008. The man who once famously said he “felt a thrill going up my leg” after watching Obama speak, is now thoroughly disenchanted:

The American people who elected Barack Hussein Obama are on the verge of feeling discarded. Too many feel they were used for that purpose: to give him the job and then fade back into the obscurity from which they cheered him and saw him as their deliverance. It’s something he has to fix.

Word is out that Obama is a “transactional” politician: he cuts deals with people, but he doesn’t forge bonds. When is he going to bolster his political forces? I keep waiting….

Obama needs battle-ready surrogates and doesn’t have them. He needs allies who will go out there and get their brains knocked in. He needs troops. And the reason he doesn’t have them, I suspect, is brutal: he hasn’t spent enough time with them; he hasn’t made them feel as though he needs an army. He’s lonely because he’s wanted to be alone. He doesn’t like the backslapping. He doesn’t like hanging around with other politicians. Guess what? They’ve noticed.

No one’s going to believe President Obama is learning unless he seems to be. Nobody is going to believe the second Obama term is going to be better than the first unless Obama lets it be known that he’s learned from his mistakes.

I remember Obama sitting onstage in Washington in the winter of 2008, collecting the endorsements of Ted Kennedy and Caroline and Patrick. Surely he knew what he was doing. He must have known, stirring in us this real hope, this giddy prospect of deliverance not just from George W. Bush and his war in Iraq but to something we’d known, loved, almost forgotten yet, somewhere down in us, dearly wanted back.

And yes, there it is, the most important, most vital reason for Obama to be more like Kennedy.

He promised he would.

I’ve never bought the idea that Obama’s party has disavowed him, but Matthews’ change of heart is stark and broader Democratic disappointment is palpable, especially amid sustained economic angst. Most dangerously for the President, that could lead to apathy on November 6, 2012.