President Obama: Calm in the eye of the storm
Homing in on a central theme of New Yorker editor David Remnick's new book on President Obama, "The Bridge," Frank Rich examines a well-worn truism in American politics today. Namely, that Obama is a Rorschach test. Whatever you think of him or whatever you believe he believes depends on where you sit politically. But Rich argues that, in fact, the president hasn't been as slippery as folks might think. "[T]he Obama we see now," he writes, "is generally consistent with the one he presented in the 2008 campaign." I'll go Rich one better. The Obama we see now is generally the one he presented when he was a little-known state senator addressing the 2004 Democratic Convention.
Late last year, I re-read 13 Obama speeches, including his 2004 address in Boston. That stirring speech fixed Obama in the American political consciousness. Six years later, it is now revealed as a blueprint. The themes espoused there -- common ground, shared responsibility and moral authority with healthy dollops of tough love -- endured in speeches from Cairo to Congress, before Europeans, Arabs, blacks and gays.
The president insists on talking to the American people and audiences abroad like adults. Much has been made of his professorial mien when doing so. Perhaps that's because he is most professorial when the political stakes are highest. In speeches on the economy in February (Congress), the U.S. relationship with Muslims in June (Cairo), health insurance reform in September (Congress) and last December on Afghanistan (West Point) and American foreign policy (Oslo), Obama methodically made his case. He explained the situation and outlined his vision or prescriptions for action.
These addresses and others are also notable for Obama's willingness to "go there," to confront controversy without apology and dispense tough love. He dealt with the divide over abortion at Notre Dame. He took on death panels at the health-care joint session. In Cairo, he took on Holocaust deniers and said the bond with Israel "is unbreakable." At the NAACP 100th Anniversary dinner in New York City last July, he said that the legacy of discrimination is "not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school." A more recent example was Obama's response to Republicans who want to "repeal and replace" the health care law: "Go for it!"
Rich nails it when he writes, "What’s clear is that Obama largely remains a fixed point even while the rest of us keep wildly revising our judgments, whether looking at him through the prism of partisan politics, race, media melodrama or any other we choose. It’s our recession-tossed country, not his presidency, that is rocked by violent mood swings."
Obama might drive people crazy because he doesn't fit with the image they thought they had of him, but I find his steadiness and consistency to be a virtue. And if you're prone to mood swings -- violent or otherwise -- or know someone who is, you know how important that is.
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