Barack Obama got mixed-to-positive reviews for his set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, with most of the pans emanating from the comb-over and crazy-pants lobbies. But the burbles of praise turned to full-throated raves as recognition dawned in the early hours of Monday morning: He knew! He knew the whole time! Even as he was raining birther quips on the hair-misted pate of Der Donald, Obama was holding down an information embargo of epic proportions. Not a trace of the triumphal can be found in his mien or delivery, which he maintained at customary liquid-nitrogen temperature though video archaeologists have made much of his reaction to Seth Myers’s tossed-off bin Laden gag doesn’t that smile just scream “ha, ha, ha, you know what I love about that joke? How funny it won’t be in about 70 hours”?
So how great an actor is Barack Obama? Personally, I think he deserves more credit for finessing some of the routine’s bumpier transitions (“So it’s been quite a year in politics … but also in the movies!”) than for bottling up the kind of delicate state secrets I’d expect normal, adult presidents to bottle up at public functions. (There are reasons, good ones, why we’ve never elected Tony Stark to anything.)
All presidents are actors, of course, and good actors understand there’s a limit to their plasticity. They work with what they’ve already got. Obama’s never going to give a great war address. (If we’re lucky, he won’t get a chance.) In all of his rhetoric, domestic and foreign, he’s never shown a fondness for battle metaphors, and he lacks the signature Scots-Irish maudlin bellicosity that has invisibly, ethnoculturally infused the American presidency practically since its inception. I’m not saying he’s incapable of striking a warlike posture — or, for that matter, of killing hundreds, possibly thousands of the righteous and unrighteous alike with clinical drone strikes. (That doesn’t take inner rage — just a certain detachment.) But O’s never going to swagger around in a G.I. Joe flight suit or make rousing orations about bubble gum and ass-kicking — he’s not even going to fantasize about it. Hundreds of hours of acting classes could be wasted trying to connect Obama to his inner berserker, and all for naught.
Which is why, I think, we’re all so fascinated by his discretion and cool, by his ability to crack jokes at The Donald, knowing that a few short news cycles hence, he’d be so far beyond the reach of Trump’s pathetic pee-filled media water balloons, nothing of the previous week’s shenanigans would even be remembered. When he took the podium to announce bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs, he did so without the barely concealed boyish glee of George Bush, without the tumescent step-to-me challenge of Bill Clinton, without the I-will-nail-this-on-take-one screen presence of Ronald Reagan: Obama doesn’t do recreational blood lust or Old Testament God-type stuff, even when it’s warranted. Instead, he reached deep inside and found his old friend and sometime enemy, the Professor. He narrated. He explained. He contextualized. He trusted his material — something bad actors can never do. And you know what? It was pretty goddamned good material.