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.