Getting His Dignity Back

His critics may complain he's overexposed. But the president last night recast the town-hall turbulence as tired summer re-runs, and showed the country who's in charge.

09.22.09 6:36 AM ET

Anyone wanting to write about Obama’s second one hundred days in office might call the account “From Leno to Letterman: A Presidential Odyssey.” Obama’s performance on Leno’s old Tonight Show six months ago couldn’t have been more different from his appearance on Letterman last night.

On Leno, Obama was self-deprecating and almost boyish, telling stories as if looking at himself from outside the “bubble,” as he charmingly called it—anecdotes about being followed by a doctor with a defibrillator, about Secret Service men who wouldn’t let him walk alone for “750 yards,” and so forth. Without sacrificing the dignity of his new office, he bent it toward ordinary life. He bantered with Leno, even seeming to have a turn at playing comedian himself.

But last night on Letterman, for all his smiles and seeming bonhomie and that bit of business about the heart-shaped potato—if only the heartland would embrace him like that! you felt he was thinking—the president wasn’t about to play along with the comedy. In reply to Letterman’s (uncharacteristically) earnest question about the bitter opposition to his proposals for health-care reform, Obama said, almost as an admonition to his host: “That’s why I end up having to be on the David Letterman Show.”

That is to say, Obama’s goal last night was to cast the recent town-hall and tea-party turbulence as tired summer reruns of historical American opposition to change. Now, he seemed to be announcing, we are in the new fall season: a bill from Max Baucus worth arguing about; impending speeches to the UN General Assembly and the Security Council; imminent talks about the economy with world leaders at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

It’s ironic that after weeks of criticizing Obama for not publicly speaking out against his critics, pundits are now criticizing him for being “overexposed” after his appearances on five talk shows on Sunday. But Obama is playing his hand with his usual political mastery. In one day and one night on Letterman, Obama replaced the television images of angry anti-Obama protesters with his poised and passionate presence all over the small screen. And after Sunday’s offensive on policy, he repaired to Letterman to answer populist rage with populist chitchat.

On Leno, he had to step down from political heights back into the living rooms of the people who had voted for him, and especially into the homes of those who hadn’t. With Letterman, he had to travel in the opposite direction; he had to raise the dignity of his office back up from the sweaty, engorged streets of a disrespectful summer (not to mention a disrespectful House chamber).

Letterman was a willing accomplice, almost a foil. He asked one (uncharacteristically!) serious question after the other, covering every aspect of current American discontent, as if massaging a giant injured back: Anger over unemployment, bitterness against those who measure economic health by the health of the banks, apprehension about the expanding war in Afghanistan. He also gave Obama a platform to remind Americans that unemployment started to soar under Bush, and to inform those Americans who resist health-care reform because they are content with their present plans that they could lose them at any time. These questions Letterman asked premeditatedly, it seemed, as part of a plan to help Obama directly counter, point by point, in a populist forum all the specific populist attacks of the summer. (I would bet my Facebook account that that nicely symbolic heart-shaped potato was no accident, either.)

But Letterman had to get to that level of sneaky purposefulness first. The only jarring moment of the show was also its most significant one.

Early in the lengthy interview, Letterman showed a photograph of Obama sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office as Sasha spied on him from her hiding space lying on the floor behind a sofa. “I hope that’s Sasha,” Obama said. The rough laughter that ensued—this is a ribald comedy show, folks—topped by Letterman's Rabelaisian laugh (calling Sarah Palin!) perhaps prompted a slightly embarrassed Obama to quickly add that if it hadn't been his daughter, that would have been a major "breach of security." But the lewd undercurrent of that laughter was as useful as it was tasteless.

With Letterman, he had to travel in the opposite direction; he had to raise the dignity of his office back up from the sweaty, engorged streets of a disrespectful summer (not to mention a disrespectful House chamber).

In one stroke, Letterman and his audience gave Obama a kind of media rebirth. The leering merriment was like the mud that had increased to almost floodlike proportions over the summer, but unlike during the summer, we were not exposed to doubts about the president’s forcefulness, commitment, consistency. We were not left to think the mud had carried the day.

Rather, Obama rose above the venue, as it were, and subjected a fidgety Letterman (he doesn’t do serious) to the kind of conversation he obviously would like to have with every American, after jumping over the airwaves between him and them. He shook off the mud and left no doubt about who was running things (at least until the midterm elections). On the last night of summer and on the true cusp of a new season, he seemed to be saying that he, and we, were finally in prime time, and that the medium that had broadcast what almost seemed to be his disgrace over the course of several simmering weeks, now had to bend, once again, to the fact of Obama in charge.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.