Obama Dons the Presidential Cloak


A mysterious thing happened in that speech Tuesday night. By the end of it Barack Obama had become president. Every president has a moment when suddenly he becomes what he meant to be, or knows what he is, and those moments aren’t always public. Bill Safire thought he saw it with Richard Nixon one day in the new president’s private study. Nixon always put a hand towel on the hassock where he put his feet, to protect the fabric, but this time he didn’t use the towel, he just put up his feet. As if it were his hassock. And his house.

So with Mr. Obama, about four-fifths of the way through the speech. He was looking from the prompters to the congressmen and senators, and suddenly he was engaging on what seemed a deeper level. His voice took on inflection. He wasn’t detached, as if he was wondering how he was doing. He seemed equal to the moment and then, in some new way, in command of it. It happened around here:

“The eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us—watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead. Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times.”

“Called to govern” is one of those phrases that lift you out of the grimy proceedings of government and into something loftier. Is that how he sees it? Such a call is “a tremendous burden, but also a great privilege,” one entrusted to few. He quoted a letter from a 14-year-old girl named Ty’Sheoma Bethea of Dillon, S.C., whose beat-up school needs help. We’ve seen this sort of thing done before—the reading of the letter from the child, or the mother who needs health care—and more often than not, it is gratingly corny. But this wasn’t. Miss Bethea wrote, “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change. . . . We are not quitters.” She borrowed money for the stamp, and sent it to Washington.

“We are not quitters,” Mr. Obama repeated. Then, to Congress, “I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far. . . . But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done.”

Anyway, it was in there somewhere that he became the president. And it wasn’t just bearing or dignity, which he has by nature, it was more mysterious. He put on the cloak.

The speech was a success in terms of optics, as journalists, political operatives and dreadful people who are once again calling Washington “this town” now say when they mean “what normal humans see on TV.” Michelle Obama was inspirationally beautiful, and if you had arms like that, you’d go bare-sleeved in February too.

In terms of policy, the jury not only is out but will be for some time. Years ago I wrote of an Italian woman in my neighborhood who made spaghetti every day. When I asked how you tell it’s done, she showed me: You take a strand and fling it against the wall. If it’s done, it sticks. If it’s not done, it falls off the wall down the side of the stove. You keep flinging till one sticks. At the end of the day that is Obama’s recovery plan. Cash infusions for the banks, fling. Tax increases, thwack. Pork—excuse me, public investment—splat. When we look back years from now, we’ll see what stuck.

And who got stuck. And how that helped or hurt.

But the larger point that Mr. Obama had to communicate, and it’s something forgotten or overlooked by political sophisticates, is this: Someone’s in the kitchen. Someone’s cooking. In a time of crisis, someone’s in charge. That’s what he had to demonstrate Tuesday night. And he did. This will do him good.

At a White House backgrounder the day of the address, an Obama aide said the speech was deliberately meant not to be Clintonian—it would not consist of 167 initiatives cobbled together. The president has been reading FDR and his fireside chats. Mr. Obama’s advisers believed they’d reached the right balance between candor about the crisis and optimism about our ability to meet it. (Close, but no unfiltered Lucky Strike in a tar-stained ivory cigarette holder. Mr. Obama doesn’t do jaunty. Something in his demeanor defeats joy; his default mode is mild indignation when his job is inspiration. He did not leave people thinking, Now I know we will defeat this calamity. But he did leave them feeling, Now I know someone’s in charge, finally someone’s taken ownership of the mess.)

Internal polling shows people are angry not only at bankers and CEOs, who were casually destructive of the economy and now have the gall to ask for money, but neighbors who were imprudent and got mortgages they couldn’t afford. The budget deficit is important structurally but can’t be a focus now, jolting the system is, stabilizing the situation is. As for the stimulus package, if they’d followed opinion polls, it would have been bigger, not smaller. Republicans made gains by opposing the stimulus, but only among their base. Independent and unaligned voters have been marginally more supportive of Mr. Obama since the stimulus battle and do not see the lack of GOP votes as a rebuke to the president.

How will we know when the Obama plan is working? When we see building projects underway. The White House is hoping for a future full of ribbon-cutting ceremonies—more optics. The public will judge the success of Mr. Obama’s plan by the answer to this question: Are we adding jobs and arresting bad trends? The White House believes the public will give them time, that people don’t expect a turnaround for two years or so.

The White House no longer uses the phrase “stimulus package.” They always say “recovery plan.” Stimulus is yesterday. When you say it, they give you a wonderfully blank-eyed look and two sentences later weave in the phrase “recovery program.”

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I think the president, politically, has three big things going for him as he faces this crisis.

First, legitimacy. Our last two presidents were haunted by the circumstances of their election, and significant swathes of the country never fully accepted them. George W. Bush had the cloud of the 2000 recount, and his loss that year of the popular vote; Bill Clinton won in 1992 with only 43% , in a three-man race in which the other two were, essentially, Republican. But no one doubts Mr. Obama’s legitimacy. He won by seven points, with 53%. He’s the first president without the illegitimacy cloud since Bush I.

Second, we’re in the middle of an emergency. In times like this, Americans want their president to succeed. Politically the crisis works for Mr. Obama.

Third is an unspoken public sense that we cannot afford another failed presidency, that we just got through one and a second would be terrible. Americans know how much good a successful presidency does for us in the world, in the public mind. The last unalloyed, inarguable success was Reagan. We need another. Liberal? Conservative? That, to the great middle of America, would, at the moment, be secondary. They want successful. They want “That worked.” They want the foreign visitor to say, “I like your president.” They want to respond, “So do I.”