John, you’ve certainly hit on the “finger-in-the-wind” aspect to liberals’ reactions to Obama’s speech. The stampede for the exits was worsened, I think, by the image of Obama in the Oval Office, a great irony for the man who once entranced the media and the public with his cool TV persona. The image projected of Obama last night was also extraordinarily damaging — perhaps fatally so — to the president, and it was dispiriting to his base. You sensed that the liberal base was not merely making a political calculation , in effect, to dump Obama, but that they were actually shaken on a visceral level, too.
For good or bad, images help shape the modern presidency. Ronald Reagan was the master of the visual – he was aided by Michael Deaver but rested on his own sense of theatricality. And the visual can also undo a president, freezing in time and then repeating ad nauseam a moment that crystallizes “the problem.” For George W. Bush, there were the photos of him looking out the window at the Katrina devastation (the message: distant, disengaged) and of him standing under the “Mission Accomplished” banner (the message: overconfident, oblivious).
That iconic moment for Obama may well be the image of him last night, hands folded behind that huge empty desk. He was revealed as an impostor, someone play-acting as president and an interloper in serious matters. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with what he said – it was that image. He and his presidency seemed shrunken, with the man once considered a political colossus now hiding behind and dwarfed by the props of the office.
Part of the reaction is certainly the steely political calculation by the left that Obama may be a lost cause. But there was also, I think, the flash of insight and the pang of panic by those invested in this president: it is impossible to maintain the pretense that he’s larger than life. The man looks entirely out of his league. For those of us who never bought into the myth, it’s easy to underestimate the demoralizing effect last night seems to have had on Obama’s base. It’s not often that one speech provides an “ah, ha!” moment of lasting impact, but last night may well have been Obama’s.