Maureen Dowd: Splendid isolation jolts Obama back to life
Defeat has left the US president free to resume being the consummate outsider
‘He’s alone on the stage – always his preferred setting. As an isolato, he can say what he thinks and define himself on his own terms. He can ascend to the mountaintop and ignore us when we pester him to come down.’ Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The talk up in Boston is all about deflation while the talk down here is all about inflation.
Our sleek, techie president, whose battery dies faster than an iPhone’s, was fully charged last Tuesday night for the State of the Union.
He was so puffed up, with such a bristling sense of self, that it was hard to believe this was the same guy who spent the last year clenched like a fist, beset by Islamic State, beheadings and Ebola, shunned by his own party and slammed by the other party in the fall election.
The murmur went up from grateful Democrats gathered at the Capitol: “Wow, he’s got a pulse.”
Proving once again that he is a different kind of cat, Barack Obama is oddly pumped by his party’s defeat. Even in the House chamber, surrounded by hundreds of people and watched by millions, he seemed to delight in his detachment as he laid down his own markers to drive up his own numbers.
He doesn’t mind splendid isolation. He really thinks it’s splendid. He’s free to revert to being the consummate outsider who doesn’t see himself in the context of a system.
He likes the game better when he’s up against an opposing team. To him, Harry Reid was as big a problem as Mitch McConnell.
Now it’s easier for him to see who he is and where he stands vis-à-vis the Republicans because he doesn’t have to make intellectual compromises or negotiate the jagged shoals of the old-school Democratic Party. Now he can define himself against modern conservatives such as Rand Paul and Scott Walker.
Obama feels he will be able to finally float above it all, more singular and more interesting and more separate, debating enlightened progressive topics like criminal justice reform and child care infrastructure while those off-kilter conservatives fight it out for 2016.
Unlike FDR, Obama was not determined to give Americans heart and courage at times of crisis. Instead, his White House tended to take on the colouration of his funks and the clouds spread worldwide.
He only began to really brag on the economy last Tuesday night, when he felt certain of the numbers, rather than before the mid-terms, when it might have helped his party. He could have done a better job all along explaining where we stood and where we were hopefully headed. As one top White House official says about the Obama inner circle, “They’d rather be right than win.”
He’s alone on the stage – always his preferred setting. As an isolato, he can say what he thinks and define himself on his own terms. He can ascend to the mountaintop and ignore us when we pester him to come down.
He doesn’t have to negotiate with Republicans anymore. He doesn’t have to stroke Democrats anymore. He doesn’t have to hawk himself to voters anymore. He isn’t concerned about Hillary, as he yanks the party to the left. He has forged no lasting links to foreign leaders. And he can have the “vacation from the press” that he told NBC News’s Chuck Todd he yearns for.
“Barry got his groove back,” as Larry Wilmore, the droll host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, put it.
We got the guy we’ve been yearning for only when he was able to blow us all off. He can finally do and say whatever he wants. One Democrat who saw Obama in the White House said the president was so buoyant he had an air of “senioritis”.
It seemed a shame, the Democrat said, that Obama couldn’t have a third term, now that he was, at long last, fired-up and ready to go. Of course, if there was a third term, he would be waiting another four years to show the mojo.
Thrilled to sidestep the press, he felt liberated enough, even as Yemen spiralled, to go on YouTube and make his case to the appealing GloZell Green, a YouTube star wearing glowing green lipstick who got famous eating cereal out of a bathtub.
Remarkably, The One has ended up in the same place the unpopular W found himself at the end of his two terms: casting his lot with history.
Now that it’s all about him, he doesn’t get languid and reflective. He rolls up his sleeves and crisscrosses the country. Anyone expecting Clintonesque triangulation or even a conciliatory nod to the winning team last Tuesday night was disappointed. Instead, they got the State of the Veto Threat Address.
The president goaded Republicans, who chortled when he reminded them he was done running for office. He shot back with his favourite snarky rejoinder to Republicans: I won.
Obama won the presidency by creating a magnetic narrative. But then, oddly, he lost the thread of his story and began drifting. He didn’t get to the point Bill Clinton did, where he had to insist he was relevant, though last summer, some of his frustrated hopey-changey acolytes talked about having an intervention with the rudderless president. But others argued against it, pointing out that, while Obama might not have the presidency that was giddily anticipated, during the 2009 tulip-craze phase, he was doing what he wanted.
He wanted to do what he saw as right and have the public and the pols come along simply because he said it was right.
But when the Potomac didn’t part when he was elected, he got grumpy and decided not to play the game.
As David Axelrod said, and as Obama concurred, the president was resistant to the symbolism and theatrical aspect of his office. He never got it that the emotional component of the presidency is real, whether it’s wooing lawmakers or comforting the nation.
When the public was jittery about Islamic State, Ebola and Ferguson, Obama responded like a law professor. He made a stunning speech on race to save his 2008 campaign, but he has stayed largely detached from the roiling race drama that stretched from St Louis to New York.
In year seven, when everyone else has started focusing on 2016, he suddenly popped up with a full-throated narrative and rationale for his presidency: it is time for the middle class to share the wealth and the Republicans are still protecting the rich.
The State of the Union was not so much “too little, too late”, as “too much, too late”.
Republicans said Obama was in “Fantasyland”. While free community college educations, money for childcare, new roads, new taxes on the rich, initiatives on climate change and partying in Cuba are all feelgood ideas for Democrats, a lot of that isn’t going to happen and he knows it.
Though Obama’s numbers are up, the results are likely to be pretty meagre. When he trolled Republicans in his speech, it felt good to him and Democrats jumped for joy. But Republicans will have their revenge – and not just Netanyahu’s visit.
In the end, the speech told us less about the state of the union than the state of Obama. The state of Obama is strong, if solitary.