Thursday, November 27, 2014

The New Obama

NEW YORK – After the second debate between US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, Obama’s supporters chorused in near-unison, “He’s back!” The languid, disengaged, and lackluster performer of the first debate had disappeared, and the impressive, beloved figure of the victorious 2008 campaign had reappeared. As the commentator Andrew Sullivan put it, “I saw the person I first saw...I saw the president I thought I knew.”

To my eye, however, the old Obama was not back. A new Obama had appeared. The old Obama was youthful, charming, graceful, and full of hope. His demeanor was crisp yet easy-going. His rhetoric soared. His smile could light up a stadium.

The Obama on display in the second debate – and the third – was harder, chillier, sadder, and more somber. There was tension in the lines of his mouth. His speech was clipped, as if under continuous rigorous control. His rhetoric did not soar, could not soar. The smile was rare and constrained.

But his command of detail and argument was rock solid. His sentences parsed. He spoke with a cold, disciplined energy. In repose (as witnessed on the split screen in the reaction shots) he was often perfectly immobile, almost stony, as if posing for a portrait.

One word for all of this would be “presidential,” in the sense of competent, seasoned, and sobered by reality. But that word also connotes the fearsome qualities of ruthlessness and brutality that any honest portrayal of the office of President of the United States must include in our day. Obama has inhabited the White House for four years; now the White House inhabits him.

Twice this autumn, Obama had already performed before tens of millions of people – in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention and in the first debate. Each time, his performance was flat. At the convention, he seemingly hoped to summon the old Obama, to charm and soar, but that man was simply no longer available.

The truth appears to be that his muse deserted him sometime in the first year of his presidency. The result was a simulacrum of the old Obama, as if he were acting the part of himself.

Then, in the first debate, no such futile effort was even made, and there was no Obama at all, neither old nor new. As so many commentators noted, in some sense he simply failed to show up. Perhaps he also thought that, well ahead in the polls, he did not have to bother to engage the pesky fellow who imagined replacing him in the White House.

At the second debate, the loss of the old Obama was apparently accepted and a new one –existing, real, available, and now working in the Oval Office – made its first appearance.

Has the presidency hardened Obama? Has it brutalized him? There are reasons for thinking that it has.

First, Obama has taken, perhaps, a heavier beating from his political opposition than most presidents. The theme of Obama’s life, clearly expressed in his eloquent memoir Dreams from My Father, and shown in the recent Frontline documentary The Choice, is reconciliation. He is not a man whose identity was handed to him by birth. Born of a white mother and an absentee Kenyan father, residing in Indonesia as a boy, raised in adolescence by a white single mother in Hawaii, he was forced to figure out his place in life on his own. He found it in the idea of reconciliation – both racial and ideological.

That was the theme of his defining speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, with its famous line, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America.”

It was to be the theme of his presidency. So, when an ideologically implacable Republican opposition, in his very first days in office, threw the vision back in his face, adopting a policy of scorched-earth opposition, the rejection was about more than policy – it affected his very being. The dreams from his father were at an end, and he was left, as he only slowly realized, with the themeless pragmatism that has become the hallmark of his administration.

Unable to find common ground with the Republican opposition, he cut deals with the other powers that immediately surround the presidency: the military and security apparatus, big pharmaceutical companies, big banks, and big media. Perhaps more important was the permission that he gave himself for violence and suppression of rights: drone strikes that have killed children as well as terrorists, the futile “surge” in Afghanistan, the continued operation of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, reliance on military tribunals, an unprecedented campaign against whistle blowers, and the assertion of a right to order the assassination of foreigners and Americans alike at his sole discretion.

All this, too, stood behind the performance of the man on stage during the second two debates. And if he is elected, it is this man who will govern. The Obama of 2008 is not back. He is not coming back. He is gone forever.

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    1. CommentedElizabeth Pula

      Obama is not just a performer who adjusts his message to the audience. Obama is dealing with exhaustion and reality of the position that he has held for 4 years. Obama not only has the guts to be direct, his sincerity and directness shows through even if he was exhausted duringthat first debate. Romney does not show any semblance to credibility or honesty. Obama does. Both politicians are both tops in political US gamesmanship, but reasonable honesty and credibility to reveal what needs to be publicly revealed appropriately shows in Obama's face, and his public messages.

    2. CommentedIra Upin

      I read your article not necessarily as a criticism of the President but as a clear observation of what the reality of the job has done to him. He is operating under unique circumstances that must cause copious amounts of his energy to be spent on maintaining his public composure in the face of blatant disrespect and absolute obstruction from his foes. The human tragedy is that a truly decent man in the toughest job there is must do this job with the added burden of opposition based on racism, stupidity, and meanness and the entire country suffers the result. No wonder he is grey, "harder, chillier, sadder, and more somber". If my assessment is correct then your article is the most clear eyed description of the truth about Obama that has been written.

    3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The problem is how the role of the President is portrayed.
      Even in this article the writer analyzes Mr. Obama's gestures, the lines around his mouth, during the campaign we hear about what music they like, what beer they brew, we talk about their wives and so on.
      The whole picture is that here we have some extraordinary individuals, with a magic wand in their hands and as soon as they are elected they can change the world.
      So candidates before office reflect this attitude, most probably they themselves believe they can change if not the world but at least make significant changes to their country.
      Even before a President or Prime Minister of any country had bow their heads before lobbies, powerful interest groups, sponsors and international commitments, but today when the whole world has become a totally intertwined, interdependent network, sinking into a never before experienced crisis, the realization that you are simply a cogwheel without any personal freedom to think or act can make the "youthful enthusiasm" disappear.
      The sooner the media, and all elements of society understand that whether you are a street sweeper or a President you are just a cogwheel in the global network, the sooner we stop placing impossible expectations on certain individuals, and start understanding that only a globally mutual cooperation can achieve any positive results.

    4. CommentedDenis Lee Onyango

      Mr. Schell your observations are spot on although one must note that President Obama's remarks at the convention charmed and soar because it was different platform and different times. The lackluster performance of the first debate was a tactic recommended by senior advisors intended to debate a more conservative Romney and drawing a sharp contrast. This was a political miscalculation because a more moderate and rigorous Romney showed up and it was difficult to shift the tactics to counter a more moderate pesky fellow challenging him.

    5. CommentedGuy Tuthill

      I think this is too generous. Once in office he behaved in ways that were completely at odds with his campaign promise, and he is excused as one who was compelled to change by the office and Republicans.

      But the change was too quick and too easy. There was no period of idealistic struggling that gave way to hard pragmatism. There is no evidence that he tried and failed. He simply was not the president that he promised to be.

    6. CommentedTristan de Inés

      Unfortunately, I have to agree with your observation.
      As Yakov Smirnoff would (perhaps) say;
      Before the White House, you want to change Washington.
      Inside the White House, Washington changes you!