The president, clearly much happier preaching Hope and Change in 2008, has seemed at times an unwilling participant in his own reelection. At the Democratic Convention, critics widely saw Bill Clinton's speech as superior, Joe Biden's as more passionate, and the president's as acceptable at best.
The first debate with Romney brought even more concern for Democrats. Obama sat looking down much of the time and seemed alternately angry, bored, or disengaged. His showing was so lackluster even faithful fans wondered whether he really wanted the White House anymore.
Perhaps that is why he too, aside from one brief surge in August, has been unable to establish a commanding lead. Despite his consistently strong personal popularity, he's had to cling for his political life to every vote he can scrape up within the margin of error.
More money, less unity
Neither candidate can say his deadlocked fate in the polls is because people have not heard his message. No other election has ever seen so much money raised and spent to win the White House -- latest estimates have the 2012 campaign costing, all in, as much as $6 billion.
All those ads, all those TV interviews with the candidates and their surrogates, all the debates and bus trips. They've each had their chances to break out over and over again. Yet neither has been able to get the job done.
They may have, however, accomplished another task. Although they each gave lip service to the idea of us all being in this together, the divisiveness of the race itself seems to have hardened opinions even more in red and blue America.
In the end, it remains to be seen if there will be a president of the United States.
Sure, someone will win the office, but arguably both campaigns have done all they can to make sure the country will be anything but united. If Obama wins, the stalwarts of red America may hunker down in their "bitterness," simply enduring the next four years while awaiting the next chance to storm the castle. If Romney wins, the faithful of blue America may feed on their fury and do to the other party's president exactly what they accuse Republicans of doing to theirs: obstructing his every plan.
Kernell likes to think not. She believes the very political partisans who've helped lead the country to this point may lead it back to more conciliatory days, if only for cynical reasons. "The economy is going to turn around," she says, "and they're all going to want to claim some responsibility."
Kirk, however, believes those better days may be a longer time coming. "I think leadership will emerge. I just don't think it has yet."
Maybe, she suggests, the candidates once had ideas of a great, unifying moment -- of a nation coming together to confront its common issues in this campaign, but along the way those dreams were lost in the margins.