Obama's happiness deficit

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 15, 2010; A15

Here's a theory about why President Obama is having a tough political time right now: He doesn't seem all that happy being president.

I know, it's the world's hardest job, and between war and the world economy collapsing, he didn't have the first year he might have wished for. And, yes, he's damned either way: With thousands of Americans risking their lives overseas and millions losing their jobs at home, we'd slam him if he acted carefree.

Still, I think Americans want a president who seems, despite everything, to relish the challenge. They don't want to have to feel grateful to him for taking on the burden.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when Obama confidant David Axelrod, noting that the president always makes time for his daughters' recitals and soccer games, told the New York Times, "I think that's part of how he sustains himself through all this."

Really? Is the presidency something to sustain yourself through?

He did ask for this job; we didn't make him take it. And so it seems fair to ask: What part of it does he enjoy? Formulating rational solutions to complex problems, for sure.

But schmoozing with foreign leaders, like President George H.W. Bush? In a column last week, Jackson Diehl pointed out that Obama's relations with just about every counterpart are prickly.

How about horse-trading or arm-twisting, like President Lyndon Johnson? George Will last week cited a recent Obama statement on the health-care bill ("Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people") to point out that Obama views such politics with a certain disdain.

Putting his feet up on his desk after a long day and chewing over events with aides, like Bill Clinton? If insider accounts are to be believed, Obama would rather preside briskly over the meeting and then go up to the family quarters or out for some basketball.

Does he recharge by heading back to the campaign trail, rolling up his sleeves and wading into the crowd? Obama will do that if he has to, to save his health-care bill. But he can't persuade us he gets much of a kick out of it.

And here's what makes this so complicated: The fact that Obama doesn't get a kick out of adoring throngs is one of the qualities that made him so appealing in the first place. Unlike with Clinton, we never felt as though he needed us; he's a secure, self-confident adult.

That's a good thing. Yes, Obama would rather have dinner with his wife than with, say, John Boehner. Wouldn't you? (With your own spouse, I mean; you don't get to choose dinner with Michelle.) I'm glad to have a president for whom family values isn't just a slogan -- and a president who cares about policy.

We understand that, even without war and recession, it wouldn't be easy. His predecessor partied and stuck him with the tab. The Republicans are reliably obstructionist; his Democrats reliably unreliable. The media are carping, superficial and relentless. He is a prisoner of the Secret Service.

And yet. It's hard to remember so far back, but the administration didn't come to town with the sense of weariness and duty that it now projects. Unlike the Bush crowd, which never stopped kvetching about having to leave Texas, the Obamas and their circle spoke about the honor of service and the excitement of being in the nation's capital.

A year later, here's how they came across to People Magazine:

"It was their first interview of the New Year on Jan. 8 in the rose-colored library on the ground floor of the White House. President Obama spoke in such a hush about the loneliness of his decisions on war and terrorism that one could hear between his words the tick of an old lighthouse clock across the room."

Do Americans really want to hear the tick of the old lighthouse clock? Or would they prefer the good cheer that we associate with FDR or JFK, the jauntiness with which they took over the White House and made it theirs?

Less lugubriousness wouldn't necessarily buy him a health-care bill. But in the long run, Americans might find it easier to root for or with Obama if he'd show us, despite everything, that he's happy we hired him.


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