Tough moments for Obama offer lessons for Yers

February 5, 2009, 10:43 PM UTC

It seems so obvious to write about President Barack Obama right now, whether you’re a fan or not, that I think I’ve been avoiding doing it. I was in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. I saw the camaraderie of the crowds. I watched in amusement as CVS clerks and CPK waiters tried their best to cope. I hummed along as Wyclef Jean sang a sweet but less than Grammy-worthy freestyle presidential tribute. I applauded the honesty of the Inaugural address, I held my breath as the new President got out of the car, and I thanked goodness that no one had gone tiger, in the words of the immortal Chris Rock, in this capitol circus. And as the first blush of love faded — confirmation hearings will do that to any relationship — and the real work of rebuilding began, I hoped that the young people who’d been so energized by “Yes We Can” wouldn’t be enervated by “Yes We Did That Already, And Now We Have To Do All The Other Way Tougher Stuff For Which There Will Be No Uplifting Slogans.”

Then Superbowl Sunday came around, and President Obama — chatting with Matt Lauer and smiling that easy smile of his — put my fears to rest. As my friend put it, “It’s kind of amazing to have a President who can say ‘shoutout’ credibly.” Don’t get me wrong: His vetting game is clearly far from airtight, and I, unlike him, have never been a huge fan of Steeler football. But what stood out about the President that day — and more recently, when he admitted he “screwed up” with the Tom Daschle nomination, and even when he called Wall Street bonuses “shameful” last week — is that he can and will talk to us, about subjects heavy and light, and in a voice we can both relate to and respect. (After all, his shoutout wasn’t to his boys back home; it was to the troops.) It may be calculated — and it probably is — but I for one appreciate a little strategic thinking in my politicians. And if they use it to keep me in the loop, all the better.

What may be even more striking, though, is Obama’s seeming desire to behave both like what I imagine a President ought to be and like the nice, cool, more or less sincere young man about campus I’m always hoping the President was at some long lost time in his life. It’s no small feat to be both youthful and presidential, and it’s even harder when you’re admitting mistakes and promising fixes. But what it communicates, whether the President means to or not, is that — for the generation of young people who will call Obama a role model — you really can do it your way. Yes, we all have to be accountable and work hard, for instance. But who’s going to have to work harder or be more accountable than Obama will? And if he can still tell jokes and enjoy a good game while he’s doing it, well, maybe we can, too.

All of this — the dialogue, the insight, even the inspiration of a grown-up guy with just about the hardest job around laughing like he means it — fosters an inclusiveness that is ultimately more empowering for young people at this moment than “Yes We Can” could ever be. Because now we are part of a conversation that’s happening not on the fringes, but in the most hallowed halls of power. And we’re talking to a man who, whatever you think of his politics, seems willing to listen.