On Sept. 15, 2008, Barack Obama was behind in the polls, caught off balance by the Sarah Palin selection and in trouble for the first time since his nomination. Then the financial collapse blindsided his rival, caused a huge civil war in the Republican Party, and dropped the presidency into his lap.
It wasn't the first time blind luck seemed to help Obama. When he ran for the Senate, his two serious rivals were sidelined by scandals that broke at the just the right moment, leaving him to cruise in against a far-right ranter (Alan Keyes) who had been brought in as desperate measure from outside the state. Obama became a celebrity and a presidential contender on the strength of one speech, and soon after that David Brooks looked at the crease in his pants and decided he'd make a really good president. The rest of the press corps agreed.
Obama did not seem lucky when he was born to a teen mother and an unstable father who would quickly desert him, or to be biracial when civil rights riots were spreading, but he grew up in Hawaii, far from the tumult, and by the time he came to the mainland many years later, the civil rights battles were won. Not just won, but they had left upper-caste whites -- of the kind he would meet in the schools he attended -- eager to make up to appealing young blacks like himself for sins they had never personally committed but for which they felt obliged to atone.
As luck would have it, Obama never personally or directly suffered from bias, nor had his immediate family. He was the descendant of academics, not slaves or sharecroppers. His African father belonged to the upper caste in the country he came from. His mother witnessed discrimination as a child living in Texas, but she was never its object. As luck would have it, Obama became the recipient of the good will incurred in the wish to atone for sufferings that befell other people. And as luck would have it, he was able to defeat Hillary Clinton because, as a black academic, he was able to assemble a unique coalition.
Luck was with Obama in Charlotte, N.C., when he made his case that the "tides of war were receding," that he had ended two wars, crippled al Qaeda with the death of bin Laden, and helped to liberate Egypt and Libya without losing American lives. But luck ran out about midday on Sept. 11, when mobs in those countries, celebrating the attacks years before in New York and Virginia, stormed embassies, burned Obama in effigy and took four more American lives. "Lead from behind" had not been the answer. Al Qaeda lived on, even if bin Laden did not. The wars he was "ending" were turning out badly. "It is not just that the U.S. remains widely disliked and distrusted," as Walter Russell Mead tells us. "It's that the strategic underpinnings of the administration's Middle East policy seem to be falling part."
And so does he. He put the blame for it all on a 12-minute film seen mainly on YouTube; said a few words about the American dead, and hopped on a plane for Las Vegas; referred to the dead as "bumps in the road" of his policies; met the flag-draped coffins when they were returned to this country, and went off for more campaign events. Along with his luck, his touch seems to have left him. And it looks like they're not coming back.
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."