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Obama: Our first female president

President Barack Obama marks his first year in the White House this week. The good feelings that surrounded him in the months after Inauguration Day a year ago have faded. Since January 2009, Obama has signed an economic stimulus bill, pushed Congress to pass health-care reform, traveled overseas and upheld traditions like the White House Easter Egg roll and a State Dinner.

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Obama is a chatterbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.

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The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama's rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to "plug the damn hole," as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn't. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Granted, the century is young -- and it shouldn't surprise anyone that Obama's rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush's boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.

Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that men are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy -- clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence, and preempting opposing positions.

I'm not so sure. The masculine-coded context of the Oval Office poses special challenges, further exacerbated by a crisis that demands decisive action. It would appear that Obama tests Campbell's argument that "nothing prevents" men from appropriating women's style without negative consequences.

Indeed, negative reaction to Obama's speech suggests the opposite. Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.

And, perhaps, next time will be a real woman's turn.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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