History aided by a teleprompter.
A couple of days ago, I saw Barack Obama speak to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Like an aged athlete in his retirement game who knew that irrespective of his final performance he was assured a place in the pantheon, Obama swung his bat easily, freely, and often hard. He knew that even his misses would elicit gasps of gratitude for having been there for eight years as the cynosure in their political imaginations. For a moment, seeing men and women soak in his presence, I was reminded of 2008 and how affected I was by the freshness of his emergence. Back then, his delivery was more stiff but his sentences rolled with the cadences of Black Church sermons. Perhaps, like a good student who knows what to learn from which teacher, he had internalized the rhythms but not the apocalyptic visions of Jeremiah Wright. Yet, there was a deliberateness, a thoughtfulness about him then that now stands in stark relief from the freewheeling but shrewdly calculating persona of Trump in 2016. Obama in 2008 was both an artifice and art. One who knew mass politics was an effort to cohere fleeting sentiments of the electorate into a prejudice. I suspect, back then, he entertained the possibility that social change was indeed possible through the office of the Presidency and that the language of reconciliation which he would deploy from the bully pulpit might "heal" the divides. But now, after violent racial tensions - by now eponymous: Fergusson, Oakland, Staten Island, Dallas... the list seems interminable - that willfully cultivated prophetic voice has ceded ground to something more real, more humbled and humbling.
Despite a whole host of legislative and executive achievements, he seems aware of the constraining power of democracy on its most powerful, even as he himself is elevated into a political demi-God. This inversion of powers is little understood, and neither do I full understand it. But, it does seem to me that the more looming is Obama's presence on American politics, the more aware is the electorate that he can only do so much and no more. We make Gods of men, only to ogle at the form of their presentations and avoid the content of their exhortations. In contrast, when he was an unknown in 2008, a baby whale with dreams of becoming the black Leviathan who would swim in an ocean sized country, his language contained the possibility of redemption. Now it merely appears as optimism. In this Obama has "lowered the tone". (a phrase I borrow from the master historian of science, Steve Shapin) In the Philadelphia speech couple of days ago, Obama's sentences were short, his words crackled with practiced conviction, and yet every so often, like in 2008, his delivery strung these memo-like sentences together into an soaring crescendo. In 2008, when Obama was Prometheus promising fire to his people, in 2016, one can't but see him as Icarus - scalded by the impossible furies of the American society - aloft, wounded, and gliding away. When I first saw Obama speak in 2007, it seemed like a miracle. So much was promised in so few words. Of course, I was more naive then. Moved by all this, I dug out an old note that I had written in 2008 to my friends, right around the time when Lehman Brothers had gone down. They wanted to know: what the hell is Obamamania? Re-reading my impressions of him then, and seeing him again in Philadelphia, I am struck by how, perhaps through sheer force of discipline, he remains largely unchanged in delivery and mannerisms. Yet for all the elaborate efforts to make him seem 'normal' as a President, the man still remains a cipher.