Obama Won as Cool and Unflappable. But Presidents Need to Act Angry Too

Americans want a leader they can relate to, as well as revere. Until Obama delivers, he must at least reflect the public mood

In the runup to the inauguration of its first president, the
republic of the United States was engaged in an earnest debate over how
to address its new leader. After a month the joint congressional
committee on titles came up with: "His High Mightiness, the President of
the United States and Protector of their Liberties." By some accounts
George Washington was more than happy, but others feared that it smacked
too much of the deferent, monarchical culture they had just deposed.
After much discussion they agreed on "Mr President" - ensuring that for
all the trappings of office and power enshrined in the constitution
nobody in the country enjoyed a higher title than Mr.

More than
two centuries later the basic tensions highlighted by those
deliberations still inform the contradictory characteristics Americans
seek in a president. On the one hand they want him (and so far it has
always been a him) to be just like them. Frustrating though it may be to
those who follow policies and platforms, the polling questions about
whom voters would most like to have a beer or carpool with matter. They
suggest a human connection, even if it is only imagined, that is neither
irrational nor entirely shallow. People want to know that the person
they are electing can relate to them and their daily lives. When George
Bush Sr announced himself "amazed" at the sight of an electronic scanner
in 1992 it helped frame him as out of touch as the nation emerged from

On the other hand there is a desire for the president
to exude the gravitas of the office. Indeed, there is a reverence for
the post that verges on the indecent in a democracy. So when people
refer to "presidential" qualities they are not talking about human
attributes but traits that might emerge almost magically from the seal
itself. It's as though the occupant of the West Wing must have
singularly impressive and uncommon abilities and judgment worthy of
heading a nation many refer to as "God's own country".

Needless to
say this navigation between the ordinary and the extraordinary is
little more than a mediated performance. The fact that George W Bush
clears brush, Barack Obama plays basketball or Bill Clinton eats fast
food is unremarkable. The fact that they are seen doing it is what is
significant. In a controlled media environment what you are allowed to
see them doing matters.

Obama performs the presidency badly. Over
the past two years he has managed to come across as aloof, detached and
occasionally dithering. On a human level his professorial demeanour
makes him look like a leader who understands but does not necessarily
feel. On a presidential level it makes him look like a leader who
prefers to think than to act.

This dislocation is particularly
acute because his candidacy - rooted in the promise of change - endowed
his presidency with expectations of transformation both symbolic and
substantial that no individual could possibly meet.

This became painfully apparent last week during a televised town hall meeting when Velma Hart,
a black woman - the demographic bedrock of Obama's base - expressed her
frustration with his presidency. "I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of
defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of
change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right

Obama acknowledged hard times but went on to answer with a
laundry list of achievements. His answer was competent but at no time
did it emotionally connect with her or anyone else. Afterwards, Hart
told the Washington Post: "I think he has made progress. I just thought
by now the progress would be more evident for the man-on-the-street
level. I thought there was something special and secret he knew that
would make things operate differently."

Asked if she thought her
expectations had been unrealistic, she said: "Absolutely. It took
decades to get here. He's only been in office for two years. But I guess
I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand."

the absence of a magic wand Obama's task is to funnel that utopian
energy he unleashed into the incremental realities and institutional
limits of his office. He campaigned in the big picture; now he must
govern in detail. In a practical sense this is not a problem: he is
clearly more comfortable in shades of grey than in black or white. For
example, in Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars, he says he doesn't
think about the Afghan war in "classic" terms of winning or losing: "I
think about it more in terms of: do you successfully prosecute a
strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker
at the end?"

This cerebral trait was once regarded as an asset.
Whereas his predecessor was impetuous, Obama was praised for being
contemplative and unflappable. Bush had a gut; Obama had a brain. Bush
was the "decider"; Obama was the thinker. After eight years of a
president who mastered a performance that did not square with reality
and had no patience for policy, the country was ready for more

But performatively, it is insufficient. It turns out
that there are moments when flappable beats stoic in public perception.
His slow-burn approach to problem-solving conveys to many not
deliberation but detachment. He has proved, at times, unable or
unwilling to reflect the public mood. During the Louisiana oil spill he
came off as insufficiently angry and urgent.

Whether one thinks
these impressions should matter or not is an entirely different issue to
whether they do. Take the economy. Throughout the recession Obama has
appeared insufficiently impatient and distraught at the pace of
improvement and the toll it is taking on ordinary families. Perceptions
of his lack of urgency relate to the slow rate of progress his policies
are having on the economy and the fact that most of his signature
achievements - the stimulus bill and healthcare reform - have not been
experienced by most as having improved their lot.

When he took
office 72% of voters believed he understood "the problems of people like
you" - that figure is now down to 50%. Many Democrats are desperate for
him to feel somebody's pain.

'I would like to see him be a
lot less cerebral and a little more emotional," Jim Moran, a Democratic
congressman from Virginia, told the New York Times. Others just want
him to come across as more accessible. "He needs more Ray's Hell Burgers
and less candlelight dinners," said Kenneth Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's
former chief of staff (who supported Obama in 2008).

Last week Bill Clinton, the performer- in-chief, gave his advice:
"Embrace people's anger, including their disappointment at you," he
told politico.com. "And just ask 'em to not let the anger cloud their
judgment. Let it concentrate their judgment. And then make your case."

does have a case. But his tepid economic policies mean it's not as good
as it might be and his poor performance means he doesn't make it as
well as he might do. The next time he meets someone like Hart he not
only needs something more impressive to say to her, he needs to find a
more impressive way of saying it.

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