Saturday, September 8, 2012

I *am* the President

IN THE CLOSING moments of his convention speech in Charlotte, President Obama said: "I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed, and so have I. I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the President." (my italics)

That last phrase -- which largely defined the speech -- was actually written as a transitional device to a larger point about the need for a serious leader in serious times. I re-watched that segment several times on YouTube to confirm my hunch. When Obama said "I'm the President" he paused a beat, then drew in breath to speak again. But the crowd went wild. Instinctively realizing the sudden import of those three words to his audience, Obama paused for several more stately beats to let them reverberate while the cameras zoomed in on his firmly set jaw.

Pardon the gushing, but it was magnificent. The viewing audience, all 35.7 million of them, clearly thought so, too. Per Twitter, Obama's speech prompted 52,756 tweets per minute, a new record that peaked at the "I'm the President" phrase.

So what's really going on here?

The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote insightfully: "To me, that final sentence came across not as boasting or preening. Instead it had a startling spare, understated drama. Obama used it as the transition to a line about the burden of wartime leadership. But I heard it as also conveying, Let's get serious here. I'm the President, so I know how hard these trade-offs are. I'm the President, so there are some things I won't joke about. But also: for all of you who think I'm a Muslim, an alien, a socialist, a fraud, here's a reminder. I'm the President."

Fallows is right. But there's something else here that is more profound. From the start, Obama has been savagely disrespected on the right. He has stoically taken, and continues to take, all manner of insults. A goodly number are racially-tinged. Some, if truth be told, stop just shy of the N-word. They hurt. How could they not? But what is lost on the detractors is that decent Americans of all political stripes feel the sting of that hurt, too. An epithet spat at Obama lands on our collective face as well. And for countless Democrats, this particular president is a mirror of their ideal selves. He is us, and we are him. It is visceral, and borne of bone-deep history. Disrespecting him is disrespecting America, her improbable achievements, and the ideals for which she has tirelessly fought for centuries.

Decent folks well know Obama is a product of this great but unfinished American Experiment, and they're rightly proud of it. And that, at bottom, is why Obama's statement of unalterable fact -- I'm the President -- felt so good to so many. Like the America that spawned him, he just won't back down. He is, by God, the President.

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