And therein lies the difference with Obama’s presidential ambition. Obama the constitutional scholar seeks change through consensus rather than overstepping. On the heels of George W. Bush, who greatly expanded executive power, Obama was elected as much for what he was not as for what he was. After Bush, we became deeply suspicious of growing executive power. The nation craved a quieter type of ambition, focused on forging consensus in enacting big changes.

In 2008, Obama seemed to embody this new ambition. His confidence in himself — and in our chance for redemption in a time of war and economic adversity — was infectious. His victory was as much a repudiation of what had brought us to those depths as it was an affirmation of American ambition. His election made us feel that, even in an era of constrained economic drive, if we could make Obama president, our ambition was not only alive and well, it was healthier than ever.

Since then, Obama has attempted to realize ambition in ways not often applied to great presidencies. He has made generous efforts of conciliation in the Middle East, in early visits with Republican leaders in Congress, in his rhetorical commitment to “not red states and blue states, but United States” and in his inclusion of Republicans in top Cabinet spots.