The morning after his re-election, Obama began his thanks to staffers at his Chicago campaign headquarters with some bromides about helping people in need. He sounded at first like any exhausted candidate -- at least like any liberal one -- recycling some lines he'd used for months on the trail.
But then Obama slipped the bonds of that script and said something more moving and instructive, not only to those he was thanking but to many who'll watch the video of his remarks.
Blinking through his fatigue at the mostly twenty-somethings in front of him, Obama recalls arriving in Chicago at 25, hoping to make a difference to poor people and to attach himself to a campaign. Unlike his listeners now, though, he tells them, he had "no structure" or campaign to join: "Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected," he recalls, to some laughter.
Although Obama doesn't exactly say so, he makes clear that in 1985 he was wandering into an inner city community he barely knew. He does say that as a community organizer he "learned to live with disappointment," "grew up," and "became a man."
That's not exactly what one would say on a campaign trail, and that he says it at all even now moves me not only because I, too, wandered into an inner-city community at that age, alone and without a plan, and learned to live with disappointment, but also because I never expected to see a President of the United States recall having done the same thing so truly.
After Obama's first, awful, debate with Mitt Romney, I wrote here that what he had seen of America since taking office in 2009 had broken his heart. After the third, "comeback" debate, though, I added that he'd summoned Lincoln's courage to stare into that abyss, bind up his broken heart, and carry on.
His remarks to his staffers deepen my conviction that, unlike Romney, Obama stared into the abyss not only in his twenties, but, again, more deeply, after 2009.
But in thanking his staff Obama doesn't dwell on his trials, as he could be forgiven for doing after what he's been through. Having "become a man," he is also a father who speaks to these, his political children, about themselves. He tells them they're better prepared and more effective than he was at their age. He tells them that while he has only another four years to make a difference, they have their whole careers ahead of them and will "do great things."
He very clearly believes it, a testimony not only to progressive faith but to something existential in him: As he notes that things "have come full circle" in assembling this campaign, he starts tearing up because he's referring not to his reelection but to having given so many the structure he didn't have when he was their age.
He has no illusion that they're finding it easy. One of my former students, whom I marked for something important when he was only 19, was in that room in Chicago. He'd first come there to help in 2008, despite some adversity and personal confusion, and he has returned this time with a clarity and direction he's had to fight for in himself as well as in the world.
Obama probably doesn't know this particular staffer's story, but in his thanks he sounds almost valedictory, as if pointing a new Joshua generation toward a land beyond the mountain he has ascended.
He does it so unpretentiously that the grandeur of it only sneaks up on you. This is no Gettysburg Address, but, precisely because it isn't a grand public performance, it marks Obama as deeply American in ways that Lincoln, too, really was.