Tom Junod’s eulogy for Barack Obama’s mystique in Esquire indulges in overwrought excuse-seeking and ultimately misses the obvious conclusion, but it’s notable for recognition of one central fact: Obama as President has been the Incredible Shrinking Man, and in more than one way. Not only does Obama seem incapable of offering soaring rhetoric that engages and inspires millions now –as Junod puts it, he no longer seems born to fill stadiums like a rock star — but the rhetoric Obama does offer makes it seem that Obama can’t even engage himself. As the Anointed Obama vanishes, all that’s left is a politician who looks very much like he’s in over his head:
Now his gift has all but deserted him, and all that prevents the story from becoming tragic is his own apparent refusal to be affected by it. There are many explanations for why he seems diminished by the power of his own office, from the vestigial racism of the American public to his misreading of his own mandate. But those are political explanations of a predicament that demands musical metaphors. Imagine Miles Davis losing not just his ability to blow but also his mystique; he might get his chops back, but the aura would be more difficult to restore, along with his ability to captivate audiences by turning his back on them. Of course, Obama has never turned his back on us, but so many Americans have turned their backs on him that it amounts to The Anointed One, as he is sometimes referred, being stripped of something that can never return: his anointment. And without it — without his air of destiny, without the idea of Obama augmenting his actuality — the rooms he used to occupy so effortlessly have changed dimensions on him, until at times he might as well be speaking from the bottom of a well. Does anyone remember the speech he gave at West Point, when he escalated the war in Afghanistan after six weeks of slow-ketchup decision making? He was all alone on that stage, and he looked all alone and somehow outnumbered by the space that surrounded him. It was the first time he was betrayed by his own stagecraft. It was the first time the enormity of his decision dwarfed the eloquence he found to express it, and he has never again looked like a man born to fill stadiums.
All this was in play on Wednesday, at the press conference he gave after the bloodletting of the mid-term elections. Could anyone have ever imagined that Barack Obama would be made to look inauthentic by the sloppy last-call tears of someone like John Boehner? Could anyone have ever imagined that he’d be in a room of reporters who wanted something from him — that he wouldn’t be able to deliver? The man acclaimed as the most gifted communicator of our age had to be prodded into admitting “it feels bad,” and after nearly an hour of prolix boilerplate offered but one takeaway line, “The Slurpee is a delicious drink,” before warming up and saying that he was going to invite Boehner to a Slurpee Summit. Indeed, the press conference was so painfully incommensurate to its historical moment that one had to wonder if he knew it — if he knew that even on this observance of loss he was losing his audience; if he knew that that he had lost not only the House of Representatives and a broad swath of the American electorate but his ability to talk his way into or out of anything; if the great singer knew that he had lost his voice. …
In less than two years he had gone from sounding like a man who could always count on his ability to strum the mystic chords of memory to a man who, no matter what he said, sounded like a politician, and one in over his head at that. Now he sounded like a man who had already realized that he had lost more than he imagined he could but was just starting to understand that he was never going to get it back. He wasn’t going to cry about it — leave that to the Republicans — but he was going to take stock, and that may have represented a beginning of sorts, even if it was also clearly an end.
Ah, yes, the “vestigial racism” excuse, which shows that Junod watches his share of MSNBC and its curiously monochromatic lineup. No one who offers this threadbare rationalization seems to explain how Obama got elected by a majority in 2008 by attracting the same people who apparently are afflicted with this “vestigial racism” now. This excuse has been used to explain voter dissatisfaction with Democrats ever since Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, offered usually in the casual, off-hand manner used here by Junod with absolutely no substantiation whatsoever. It’s the elbow nudge to the ribs among the Left that says, “You know that all those people are racists,” which is a form of bigotry in and of itself.
Junod comes close to one of the reasons why Obama is in over his head, which is his misreading of the mandate from the 2008 election, but whiffs completely on the underlying problem. Obama got elected by saying that change was more important than competence, and he has proven himself massively wrong. Obama is in over his head, and it shows. It showed on the campaign trail for those who bothered to look for it rather than cheerlead Obama’s narrative. Why should anyone be surprised when a man with no executive, economic, military, or diplomatic experience who had only three years in the Senate starts flailing when elected President?
If the media had vetted him as a politician rather than a rock star, perhaps people like Junod might be a little less surprised to find an emperor with no clothes instead of an Anointed One.