With one mighty bound, he was free. Well, at least his mojo was. Obama has figured out the best method to prepare the way for his verbal Houdini acts: Use political noise as the tune-up din before the aria. Perhaps his body temperature is so low it sometimes takes him too long to break out the song.
He was helped by the hysterical pitch of all the pre-performance commentary. It had become received wisdom among the pundits over the last week that Americans needed him to show us how to lead. That he had to make it clear who was in charge. That he had to remind us why we voted for him. By the time he made his way to the presidential podium, we were all in suspense about how this new leaderly macho would express itself. I half-expected him to barnstorm out in riding boots and harangue us, Mussolini-style, underlit from a plinth.
I half-expected him to barnstorm out in riding boots and harangue us, Mussolini-style, underlit from a plinth.
Fortunately, it was the Democratic members of Congress who were excessive. They gave Obama an extended ovation appropriate to Winston Churchill on V-E Day—except the Brits are more restrained. Hillary Clinton was so eager to demonstrate there is no daylight between herself and the president that she almost swooned in his arms when he stopped to embrace her. Seated with Jill Biden and Ted Kennedy’s sorrowful widow, Victoria, Michelle looked regal and moody, as if she still missed the beach.
When Obama dispenses with that dread sobriquet “professorial,” he does it by being, well, more professorial. This time he gave us not the wonky professor but the academic star who has had enough with the antics of his rowdy class. “The time for bickering is past! The time for games is OVER!”
It was a boon that, true to form, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson scored an own goal by yelling, “You lie!” when Obama had said—truthfully—that illegal immigrants would not be covered (as distinct from legal but non-citizen immigrants).
Obama’s great asset has always been an ability to maintain his air of authority without being baritone about it. He can be boring, but he is never ridiculous or pompous. When he called timeout on the bickering and the games, the Republicans sitting sullenly on their hands were reduced on TV to foolish members of the class who had been throwing ink bombs all summer at the math teacher. They looked all the more surly after Obama had wrung a double thumbs-up from John McCain for adopting a McCain campaign measure—offering Americans who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions low-cost coverage to protect them against financial ruin if they get seriously ill.
No, he wasn’t convincing about the cost of all this, and he lost me when he got into that damn insurance exchange, but he had an ace up his sleeve with Ted Kennedy’s posthumous letter. His riff about what the dying senator had called the “character of our country” was inspired, reminiscent of his original career-making “not a liberal America and a conservative America” hit at the 2004 Democratic convention. There was something about the writerly way Obama relished the phrase “the character of our country” that made it his own, not Ted’s, and conjured up an America that was flinty but big-hearted, self-sufficient but also neighborly. It communicated, at the eleventh hour, the missing soul in the partisan debate.
Perhaps Obama is often slow to nail controversies because he needs time to live inside them for a while in his head. It’s unnerving for the rest of us, but even the haters, one feels, are made to think more deeply than they’d like before they return to the bickering and the games.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .