Barack Obama has faced peril before, particularly during the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright last year, but the crisis he faces now is more systemic.
The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan cost at least 541 American lives in the past year, and the overall total will pass 1,000 this month and likely double before 2012. The unfunded taxpayer cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan during Obama's first year was $119.1 billion, and Afghanistan alone will become another trillion-dollar war under his administration.
Obama may succeed in withdrawing 100,000 American troops from Iraq this year, and the rest by 2012. But even this goal faces opposition from the Green Zone to the Beltway, and any peace dividend will be swallowed by Afghanistan and the Long War.
This is an unspoken reason for the growing budget and economic crisis Obama will address in tonight's State of the Union address. Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama will learn too late that the spending on war will devour his domestic agenda and long-term dreams.
But Obama's crisis is not about a mistaken tactical choice about priorities. He could not have reached the presidency without promising to win the war against al Qaeda, even if they no longer were in Afghanistan. He couldn't afford to "lose" two wars.
The more general crisis is that he is trapped between the social movements that meant so much to his winning the presidency and the stubborn Machiavellians who command the corporate and military heights of power.
Obama is losing his left constituency, who unfortunately seem to think if he only "fights harder" and "stands up" he will blow away these Machiavellian interests like someone blowing out their birthday candles. They haven't seen the US Senate lately.
He is losing independents too, because the economic recession was addressed only with a limited stimulus package and Wall Street bailouts that incredibly left the middle and working classes out, then was followed by a trillion-dollar health care package including cuts in Medicare.
And, oh yes, the Copenhagen debacle buried for now the bright future of green jobs.
Besides losing progressives and independents, Obama also has managed to consolidate the Republican right, and can only hope that they will splinter on their way to greater power this November and beyond.
How did this happen? Because to win the presidency, Obama had to give Afghanistan to the Pentagon, the bailouts to Wall Street, the energy agenda to the oil and gas companies, and health care to the undemocratic US Senate and their insurance company patrons.
What he should say tonight is that the first year has been about the question of whether the special interests in Washington heard the message of change in 2008, and he should tell the American people that the answer has been No.
But he cannot say what he knows, because he thinks -- correctly, I believe -- that he can be driven from office by a defeat in Afghanistan, a flight of capital from Wall Street, a manufactured energy crisis, or the rise of inflation.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed the military-civilian line to push Obama for more troops, threatening military failure if the president didn't come through. Behind McChrystal has been Gen. David Petraeus, a presidential candidate all but waiting in the wings.
Obama advisers confided to allies around the country that they felt threatened by Wall Street with an overseas flight of capital if taxes or regulations were too steep. They felt they couldn't afford the political risk.
They dismissed Sarah Palin and the Tea Party as nuts, then gave them the oxygen of economic populism.
I remember meeting President Jimmy Carter in the White House in the Seventies, and asking him this question: "Mr. President, do you believe that the unelected multinational corporations have more power than the elected president of the United States?" Carter paused, then said, "I learned that my first year in office." Here we go again.
It's too early to tell, but we may look back on the Obama presidency as a public mandate to move forward as a nation on the question of race. The paradox was that the underlying mandate was too sensitive to articulate as the main issue of the election, but it was there nonetheless. We transcended racism not because we had become "post-racial" but because racism was too controversial to discuss directly. Instead the Obama mandate was expressed elliptically as "change" and "hope," phrases that glossed over deep differences about war and peace, the public sector versus the market, energy consumption versus energy conservation, secularism versus religion, all the confrontations labeled red versus blue.
It's hard to advocate change when you are president. It's hard to rally the grass-roots public instead of gradually being consumed as the conductor of a discordant orchestra of special interests.
His one chance, I believe, is to cast the first year of his presidency as a year when the interest groups were given their chance and rejected the message of change. Then Obama can launch a public process of diagnosing as obstacles the military contractors, the Wall Street bankers, the oil and gas complex, and the job-exporting corporations, for starters. He doesn't have to rail against them (though Franklin Roosevelt did, with great success), because then he will be accused of being out of character, an opportunist. He can say instead that he tried to be reasonable, he tried to meet them part way, but they have stalled, instead of embraced, the mandate of change, that they seem to want to wait him out.
Words are crucial for public education, but even golden words won't do. The president needs to be hands-on, like Michelle Obama in the organic garden, investing what resources are available in job-creating sectors, in preventive health care and emergency rooms, in making schools and colleges affordable, in budding high-tech entrepreneurs, thus building a new movement by making tangible differences in everyday lives. He needs to be more of a community organizer.
He needs to say briefly, without rhetoric, that he intends to end these two wars step by step, invest in domestic priorities, regulate Wall Street in the public interest, achieve health care for all Americans and a safer energy future with green jobs, whether it costs him the presidency or not. He should ask for some high-level resignations and appoint some progressive doers.
But he will consider this too radical a leap.
Instead, his advisers are likely to have him slog forward while the crisis deepens, hoping for Sarah Palin and the souring of the Tea Party by 2012, instead of Petraeus,
Tom Hayden teaches at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center.