The Obama phenomenon has imploded. Expectations were absurdly high five years ago this month when Barack Obama was inaugurated 44th president of the United States. Today, however, Americans are bemused by how exactly it went all wrong. 

The national debt is breathtakingly high and the economy remains sluggish more than four years since the end of the recession. The vacillation over the Syrian crisis last September has recklessly dissipated US credibility and prestige. And the Administration’s signature policy, the Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as “Obamacare” — is eroding the President’s support like the carbon tax did Australia’s recent Labor government. 

Respect for and confidence in Obama has collapsed. His approval ratings have crashed to below the 40 per cent mark, his lowest ever, and a majority of Americans think he is untrustworthy. There is widespread talk of a lame-duck presidency three years before Obama’s term ends. 

Never has an American leader come to power on such a bubble of expectation. Never has the pricking of that bubble caused so much shock and anger. The Economist reflected the conventional wisdom a few weeks ago in its cover story, illustrated with an image of Obama sinking. The headline: “The man who used to walk on water.” 

Conservatives and Republicans view Obama’s demise with delight: their prospects of regaining control of the Senate have improved in recent months. Left-liberals and Democrats either vent their anger and disappointment or try to change the subject to 2016: Hillary Clinton, Obama’s one-time nemesis, is hot favourite to win the next presidential election. In between, there is much sighing and shaking of heads. It was not supposed to be like this, but the fact that it is calls for some explanation. 

The temptation, scarcely resisted among left-leaning pundits, is to blame it all on Obama’s right-wing opponents. Radical, vitriolic, unhinged, nasty, confrontational — all of these adjectives have been hurled at the Republicans, especially the Tea Party movement. By refusing to recognise Obama’s democratic mandate to implement reforms to America’s health system, it is argued, today’s GOP is pushing a narrow ideological agenda that contributes significantly to the polarised and dysfunctional culture in Washington. That is why large segments of Middle America are turning off politics. 

But while it is true that several conservative legislators overreached in the budget negotiations that culminated in last October’s government shutdown, it is also true the GOP controls only one half of one branch of government. Republicans, moreover, can’t be blamed for Obama’s big spending and interventionist policies, which have made America a more regulated society, suffocating enterprise and discouraging work. 

A different explanation, put forward by right-wing columnists and radio shock jocks, is to blame Obama himself. According to Charles Krauthammer, Obama’s ambitious, social-democratic brand of American liberalism — Obamacare, universal preschool, runaway spending, energy regulations — represents radical ideological change in a nation where the centre of political gravity remains to the right.

But there are problems with this analysis, too. For one thing, Obama was comfortably re-elected on a liberal platform in 2012, and demographic trends do indicate that America is becoming a more progressive place — from abortion rights and gay marriage to immigration and a non-interventionist foreign policy. 

Moreover, some of the right-wing criticism of Obama is unfair, because it fails to put his presidency in the context of his predecessor’s legacy. George W. Bush responded decisively to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the collapse of Wall Street in 2008. But his reputation is tainted by two costly wars, big spending policies, and the Federal Reserve’s housing and mortgage mania, which led to soaring debt, budget deficit, and the financial crisis. For conservatives to ignore or downplay the failures of frankly the worst presidency since the scandal-plagued years of Warren Harding is intellectually dishonest. 

A more persuasive explanation for America’s widespread angst might be found elsewhere. This is that the backlash against both sides of politics has less to do with ideological overreach by either Obama or his conservative opponents and more to do with America’s spiritual doldrums — a cultural crisis that stems from expectations about America’s future that no president or congress can meet. 

For generations, Americans have seen their nation as “a city upon a hill” (John Winthrop) and “the last best hope of Earth” (Abraham Lincoln) that would make the world “safe for democracy” (Woodrow Wilson). The same vision is echoed in the idea of the American Century, which shaped the national consciousness after World War II, when the United States enjoyed an almost absolute supremacy in world affairs. The collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War reinforced the perception of American exceptionalism. 

But a concatenation of events and circumstances from recent times — the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, political scandals, mounting trade and budget deficits, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, a debt larger than GDP, diminishing net wealth, the decline of US global pre-eminence, the rise of a more pluralistic world, and what neo-conservative founding father Irving Kristol once identified as “clear signs of rot and decadence germinating in American society” — undermined the confidence of the sole remaining superpower. Many Americans are in an increasingly foul mood: polls consistently detect a widespread sense that the nation is heading in the wrong direction. 

In 2008–09, Obama’s clarity of purpose was motivated by a nostalgia for the national mission. And just as Americans had endorsed his predecessor’s crusading war on terror after 9/11, Americans had embraced Obama’s optimistic vision of change and renewal. But in the five years since, he too has failed to meet the lofty expectations that the public, the media, and he himself set. The results are rapid mood swings within the electorate, epitomised in Obama’s fall from adulation to anger within the past five years. 

The danger of American exceptionalism is that it discourages compromise and flexibility, and encourages a sense of omnipotence. And although the United States has shown an impressive ability to bounce back from past setbacks, it will not enjoy the kind of absolute global supremacy that it held in the aftermath of World War II. Nor is it likely to command the unrivalled power and prestige that accompanied the so-called unipolar moment of the early 1990s. 

To be sure, as Richard Haass makes clear in this issue, America will remain the world’s most powerful nation: it boasts the globe’s largest economy and the most capable military force. No other power is capable of rivaling US power. Add its unique demographics and its enormous capacity for change and renewal, and it is clear that America will remain the most powerful state in the world for the next generation or longer. 

But as Haass also recognises, political leaders (whatever their ideological affiliation) should prepare the nation for the reality that America no longer has the will, wallet or influence to impose an ambitious global leadership across the globe. Washington should instead reorder priorities in favour of domestic affairs and a more discriminating foreign policy. Otherwise, it risks leaving the American people open to sad surprise in an era in which not every option is available and resources are not unlimited. Despair and frustration could continue to roil the political climate. Not an ideal platform on which to campaign in 2016, but one that the incumbent president could try to define.