In an increasingly black-and-white political universe, Obama is now all gray, all the time. As a result, the man elected to be a post-partisan figure has become one, stuck in the unpopulated center, out of place in the binary equation of R’s and D’s. Those qualities were supposed to make him the perfect antidote to George W. Bush—but instead voters seem to have gotten what they wanted and then not wanted what they got.

What they got was a realist, a man who, like him or not, seems more uncomfortable than ever pandering to voters or telling them what they want to hear, who has always believed that simply explaining was enough, who has almost no patience for political theater and little interest in using his office for pure optical purposes. Despite his rock-star origins, he’s no showman. And at times, he comes off as almost determinedly tone-deaf.

Think about last week, when Obama invited doctors and nurses who had treated the Ebola virus to an event to the White House. The outbreak had become a key issue on campaign trails across the United States. There was almost no political upside to an event dedicated to minimizing the risk of transmission, but the president did it anyway, determined to be the Explainer in Chief and to try to dissipate the cloud of fear enveloping the country.

Or when he argued that his policies were indeed on the ballot for these midterms, despite a legion of at-risk Democrats hollering it wasn’t so.