First comes Christopher Benfey at the New York Review of Books, whose glowing praise for Barack Obama is exceeded only by his palpable disgust for Mitt Romney:
I have no idea what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he dragged an empty chair up to the stage at the Republican Convention in Tampa last August. Maybe he was thinking, as some have suggested, of some bygone exercise in a Lee Strasberg acting class. “Please, Clint. Talk to the chair. You are Hamlet and the chair is Ophelia. Please. Just talk to her.” Or maybe a marriage counselor had used an empty chair to teach the tight-lipped gunslinger from Carmel how to empathize with his wife. “Go ahead, Clint, make her day. Tell her what you’re feeling.”
I was thinking of that empty chair in Tampa as I watched Tuesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. I was thinking what our country would be like, what the world would be like, without Barack Obama seated in the Oval Office. That’s the empty chair that keeps me awake at night…
The tragic dimension is there in the President’s face and in his shoulders. It was there, visibly there, in his performance in the first debate—not “lackluster,” as it was widely described, but burdened, bedeviled, fraught. Not for nothing did he invoke, and quite rightly, Abraham Lincoln. During the second debate, he was more combative, confrontational, locked in. But what came through most strongly was the contrast between Romney’s vacuous claim to care for 100 percent of all Americans (since we’re all “children of the same God,” he can apparently include even the 47 percent who are moochers), and the detailed ways, the detailed policies, in which Obama has actually shown that he cares for all of us.
Yeah, I’d say it’s a bit over the top, especially for the New York Review of Books, whose essays are generally more thoughtful and less, shall we say, obsequious. Fortunately, the New Yorker‘s endorsement of the president was substantially more nuanced:
Perhaps inevitably, the President has disappointed some of his most ardent supporters. Part of their disappointment is a reflection of the fantastical expectations that attached to him. Some, quite reasonably, are disappointed in his policy failures (on Guantánamo, climate change, and gun control); others question the morality of the persistent use of predator drones. And, of course, 2012 offers nothing like the ecstasy of taking part in a historical advance: the reëlection of the first African-American President does not inspire the same level of communal pride. But the reëlection of a President who has been progressive, competent, rational, decent, and, at times, visionary is a serious matter. The President has achieved a run of ambitious legislative, social, and foreign-policy successes that relieved a large measure of the human suffering and national shame inflicted by the Bush Administration. Obama has renewed the honor of the office he holds…
One quality that so many voters admired in Obama in 2008 was his unusual temperament: inspirational, yet formal, cool, hyper-rational. He promised to be the least crazy of Presidents, the least erratic and unpredictable. The triumph of that temperament was in evidence on a spring night in 2011, as he performed his duties, with a standup’s precision and preternatural élan, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, all the while knowing that he had, with no guarantee of success, dispatched Navy seal Team Six to kill bin Laden. In the modern era, we have had Presidents who were known to seduce interns (Kennedy and Clinton), talk to paintings (Nixon), and confuse movies with reality (Reagan). Obama’s restraint has largely served him, and the country, well.
But Obama is also a human being, a flawed and complicated one, and as the world has come to know him better we have sometimes seen the downside of his temperament: a certain insularity and self-satisfaction; a tendency at times—as in the first debate with Mitt Romney—to betray disdain for the unpleasant tasks of politics. As a political warrior, Obama can be withdrawn, even strangely passive. He has sometimes struggled to convey the human stakes of the policies he has initiated. In the remaining days of the campaign, Obama must be entirely, and vividly, present, as he was in the second debate with Romney. He must clarify not only what he has achieved but also what he intends to achieve, how he intends to accelerate the recovery, spur employment, and allay the debt crisis; how he intends to deal with an increasingly perilous situation in Pakistan; what he will do if Iran fails to bring its nuclear program into line with international strictures. Most important, he needs to convey the larger vision that matches his outsized record of achievement.
Meanwhile, the closest thing we have to a king of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continues to hold his cards closely.