Obama's cool is leaving more people cold
"The trouble with you is," she continued steadily, "you think people should stay in their own sealed packages. You don't believe in opening up. You don't believe in trading back and forth."
"I certainly don't," Macon said, buttoning his shirt front.
-- Anne Tyler,
"The Accidental Tourist"
If politics were literature, Bill Clinton would be Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby," casually smashing lives around him while remaining untouched by the chaos he creates. Barack Obama is more like Macon Leary in "The Accidental Tourist," the author of tour guides who hates travel. "He was happiest with a regular scheme of things" -- a cautious driver and committed flosser, systematic and steady, suspicious of unpredictable yearnings, displaying an "appalling calm" in times of crisis. "If you let yourself get angry you'll be . . . consumed," Macon says. "You'll burn up. It's not productive." Only order and method are productive. He is attracted to the "virtuous delights of organizing a disorganized country."
Macon uses structure and rationality to avoid facing personal loss. Obama's emotional distance seems rooted in self-sufficiency -- a stout fortress of self-confidence. But the effect is much the same. Obama leads a country without reflecting its passions -- at least any he is willing to share. Events leave him apparently untouched. He doesn't need the crowd. Americans have always loved Obama more than he seems to care for us.
Reaction to this trait is one of the main dividing lines in American politics. Some view it as cold, cerebral and off-putting. Obama supporters still find his reserve refreshing, a welcome contrast to emotive and theatrical politicians. For me -- constitutionally averse to hugging, back-slapping and other forms of politically motivated manhandling -- Obama's manner has a certain appeal. It offers some of the pre-Oprah presidential dignity of Rutherford B. Hayes or James Garfield.
Obama's challenge is not a lack of theatrics. It is a lack of range. The most effective modern presidents -- a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan -- were able to adopt a number of tones and roles. They could express grand national ambition, withering partisan contempt, humorous self-deprecation, tear-jerking sentimentality, patriotic passion -- sometimes all in the same speech. They played an orchestra of arguments and emotions -- blaring trumpets, soft violins, rude tubas.
Not every president -- not even every successful president -- has this kind of versatility. But Obama's monotone manner has worn poorly. During the primaries, his cool detachment highlighted Sen. John McCain's alarming excitability. As president, Obama's rhetorical range runs from lecturing to prickly -- the full gamut from A to C. His speeches are symphonies performed entirely with a tin whistle and an accordion. To switch metaphors, Obama is a pitcher with one pitch. He excels only at explanation. Initially this conveyed a chilly competence. But as the impression of competence has faded, we are left only with coldness.
In retrospect, one of the defining moments of the Obama presidency may have been his first two minutes in public after the Fort Hood shootings -- the initial test of his extemporaneous leadership. "Let me first of all just thank Ken and the entire Department of the Interior staff for organizing just an extraordinary conference," said Obama. "I want to thank my Cabinet members and senior administration officials who participated today. I hear that Dr. Joe 'Medicine' Crow was around, and so I want to give a shout-out . . ."
Obama's "appalling calm" has been seen following bank abuses, a terrorist bombing attempt and an oil spill. And it is more than just a stylistic drawback. Obama has adopted a risky, costly, necessary military strategy in Afghanistan. Yet the rhetorical resources he has devoted to its defense have been meager. Can a wartime president succeed without providing inspiration and expressing determination? What if even greater national exertions become necessary in North Korea or Iran? Sometimes it is not sufficient to organize a disorganized country. It must be led.
"Before the orator can inspire audiences with any emotion," argued Winston Churchill, "he must be swayed by it himself. When he would rouse their indignation his heart is filled with anger. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe."
Obama's limited rhetorical range raises questions about the content of his deepest beliefs. For this reason among others, the man who doesn't need the love of crowds is gradually losing it.