Magazine article The New Yorker

Walking the Walk

Magazine article The New Yorker

Walking the Walk

Article excerpt

After Barack Obama had been sworn in for the final time for his final term--and after he had delivered his final Inaugural Address, and after he had turned to leave the podium atop the Capitol steps (though not before turning back to gaze at the multitude on the Mall, murmuring, "I want to take a look one more time, I'm not going to see this again"), and after he and Michelle had walked down Pennsylvania Avenue--the Obamas repaired to a glassed-in reviewing stand in front of the White House. They seemed as relaxed as if they were upstairs in the family quarters, watching the marching bands on TV like the rest of us. The First Couple smooched for Sasha's iPhone camera. Malia stuck her head in front of her sister's lens and made a face. And the President popped something into his mouth.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews posed a question to his panel: "O.K., ladies and gentlemen, what's he chewing?"

"Nicorette," said Joy Reid, the managing editor of TheGrio.com.

"Nicorette," said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Chairman.

"We all vote for Nicorette," said Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist.

"And he's doing it openly," Reid added. "He's not even hiding it!"

It was as if Obama, having become the first Democratic President since F.D.R. to be granted a second term by a popular majority, had decided, what the hell, he might as well risk letting Obama be Obama. He has never really been anybody but, of course. His famous temperament--cool, analytic, self-confidently averse to self-pity and self-dramatization--has been a constant since childhood. His usually sympathetic, sometimes overgenerous interpretation of others' motives has been a hallmark of his character at least since his student days. His impulse to bridge gaps--to harmonize political, cultural, and racial differences, much as he harmonized the disparities embedded in his own melange of identities--was indispensable to his political ascent. But so was the consistency of his social vision, which has scarcely changed since his student days. And so was the strength of his ambition to advance that vision and to overcome the obstacles in its (and his) path--if necessary, by audacious struggle. By fighting for it.

Still, as the Obama of the second term emerges, everyone senses a difference from the Obama of the first. It's not that there's a New Obama, a la the many New Nixons of old. But the harmonizing, conciliatory side of the President's political and personal character has been eclipsed, for the moment at least, by the side of him that is at once more insistent and more visionary. That side was on display, somewhat tentatively, in the year-end showdown over allowing taxes to rise on the highest incomes. It was manifest in his defiance of the latest Republican attempt to blackmail him by threatening to force the government into default. And it found robust expression in an Inaugural Address that added up to a quietly passionate brief for both the necessity and the Americanness of an energetic public sphere--a manifesto for what the President dared to call, with a touch of sly provocation, "collective action."

This address was in every way superior to the one he had delivered from the same spot four years earlier. That one, coming amid a terrifying financial crisis that the speaker described in surprisingly mild terms ("our economy is badly weakened"), had been a surprisingly pedestrian call for unity, for abandoning "stale political arguments" and "worn-out dogmas." This one was a political argument--a political argument that advocated, if not a dogma (outside of the Vatican, nobody likes dogmas), a political creed. …

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