The new Obama

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Jonathan Schell

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 de­meanour was crisp yet easy­go­ing. 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.

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