Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A new meme a-comin’

The late-night TV crowd has a knack for distilling the national conversation down to something manageable, and one of their number did it again last night. David Letterman of CBS’ “The Late Show With” got to the heart of the still-developing national reappraisal of President Obama on national security and the fight against terrorism, in the wake of the May 1 raid on Osama bin Laden.

Letterman, who’s always done this kind of thing better than most, made part of his monologue a tongue-through-cheek assessment of Obama’s performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 30, and how, despite the president’s customary cool and his intent to keep the secret of what was to unfold in Afghanistan in less than 24 hours, it was possible to get a glimpse of what was coming. “If you take a look at that videotape," Letterman said, "you can see signs ... that something was up.”

What follows was a brilliant, provocative, doctored-video clip of President Obama in a new mode, Obama at the podium dispensing weapons to American soldiers and finally brandishing and firing a shotgun.

This is why we need late-night. They can say not just what isn’t being said or expressed by the mainstream media in prime-time; Letterman and his cohort can say what people are saying to themselves, at a million water coolers and break rooms across America.

And that video clip also suggests an opportunity for President Obama to redefine himself — to effectively reintroduce himself — to the American people in the runup to the 2012 presidential campaign.

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We know the old meme for Barack Obama. He was the Change agent. The C word dominated the 2008 campaign; it was foundational in Obama’s campaign literature, in his stump speeches, in what he successfully instilled in the American electorate.

Since he’s taken office, of course, his deliberate, methodical approach to decision-making has been thoroughly condemned by the red meat eaters of the Republican party — those for whom bombing of our enemies back to the Stone Age wouldn’t have been far enough. He’s been called too professorial, too measured, too — what’s the word they threw around? — nuanced to be an effective leader against a terrorist threat.

What a difference a raid makes. In a relative instant, Obama has reshaped the national posture vis-à-vis global terrorism, removed a longtime terrorist threat who was as much operational as inspirational; and proving again (as if it needed to be proved again) that the perception of a Democratic administration as weak and ineffectual against terrorism is as dated and willfully inaccurate as those who propagate that myth.

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This isn’t to suggest that Obama 2012 will be party to some new John Wayne lock-and-load meme; his administration’s targeted, precise use of force points to a future in which new use of military force will be more the exception than the rule.

But the Obama we’ve seen in the last ten days — the president lampooned on Letterman last night — will give his Republican opponents (whoever they turn out to be) more sleepless nights than they’ve had already.

However the Obama brand is symbolized in words next year (“Obama: The Strength to Lead,” “Obama: Bustin’ Caps When Necessary”), it means the same thing for the Republicans: Right now, President Obama remains the equation for which they have no solution.

Image credits: Obama screengrabs: “The Late Show With David Latterman”: © 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants. CNN.com home page: CNN. 

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