Rarely has a public figure done as much good for himself with one speech as Barack Obama did with his victory speech after winning in Iowa. Commentators did the fastest flip in broadcasting history. You could visibly see their minds whirling as they went from Position A: Obama appeals to intellectuals and naive idealists, to Position B: Obama is unstoppable.
The reason that the speech worked such magic is that Sen. Obama suddenly sounded "presidential." But how can a major transformation happen overnight? The reason is that it didn't happen overnight and yet it did. Both are true. Students of history were reminded of a famous incident from the career of Benjamin Disraeli (himself a very unlikely prime minister, being both Jewish and a romance novelist by trade). Giving advice to an Oxford student who wanted to enter British politics, Disraeli wrote, "Young man, there are only two things you must know to pursue a career in public life. You must know yourself and you must know the times."
Everyone now agrees that Obama knows the times -- his call to turn the corner echoes JFK's four decades ago -- but it's the first quality that few have pointed out. Sen. Obama has written eloquently about his search for identity, and those who have met him personally come away believing that he knows himself deeply, sincerely, and truly. With such grounding in self-awareness, Obama gave himself something that can't be gained from the outside: the ability to evolve personally and the flexibility to adapt quickly as the times demand.
When France fell into a national crisis of confidence after World War II, Charles De Gaulle rallied every citizen by assuming the mantle of national identity on himself. He said, "I am France," which was taken not as astonishing egotism but as an affirmation that all the French could look to him for leadership. At that time, bitter rancor divided those who had fought in the Resistance and those who had collaborated with the Nazis. De Gaulle offered a noble illusion -- we are all one people -- and it turned into reality.
In essence Sen. Obama's speech said, "I am America," and amazingly enough, people from all walks of life, political persuasions, faiths, and ethnic backgrounds believe him. It's an audacious rallying cry. Obama made himself both lighthouse and lightning rod. (I imagine some part of himself quakes to think on what he's done.) Watching cynical reporters and political commentators believe in him almost instantaneously is breathtaking. There was no guarantee that the tide would turn. The climate of division has been long and deep-seated. Nobody from either party had called upon Americans to show their better nature -- indeed, we have been mired in our worst nature, seemingly for the foreseeable future.
I'd suggest that the X factor which sets Barack Obama aside as a unique candidate is his hard-won self-awareness. If we are lucky, we will wake up and begin the journey back to self-awareness as a people. Disraeli wasn't entirely right. To make a career in public life a person must know himself and know the times. But to make a historical career in public life, the times must seek you out. That happens only rarely, and now it has happened to a junior senator from Illinois. If Barack Obama makes it all the way to the White House, it will represent a quantum leap in American consciousness and a promise to restore America's position in the world.