Obama did not have to tack nearly as far left as he would have if he were fighting other Democrats for the nomination this year, and undeniably he had some accomplishments to carry into the election. Health care reform was upheld by the Supreme Court. The war in Iraq was concluded and Afghanistan is winding down. As Vice President Joe Biden loves to say, because of Barack Obama, "Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."
Despite all that, the president, too, has spent the campaign in a marginal spot, right alongside Romney. His enemy is the economy, or as Kernell puts it, "Unemployment hasn't gone down;" at least not down to the 5% range Obama himself promised early in his term when he was touting the stimulus.
Most voters have been willing to blame the legacy of the Bush years, and the president has encouraged that thinking at every juncture, reminding anyone who will listen that he inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression.
An unwilling participant in his own reelection But his reelection team clearly knew "It could be worse" was not much of a campaign slogan, so over the summer they steadily shifted to a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Gone is "No Drama Obama" -- the apparently easygoing man who went into the White House promising to bring warring political parties to the table of peace and prosperity. In his place is a much tougher talking candidate who misses no chance to savage the Republicans, to ridicule Romney as a "bull****er," and like his opponent, to bend the truth until it breaks. "They're ignoring the fact checkers," Kirk says of both Obama and Romney.
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.