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Obama’s strength is now his weakness

The Independent, November 8th 2010

The President has become too cool for his own good

When President Obama redecorated the Oval Office, it was in various shades of beige. “I like taupe,” he explained to The New York Times. Taupe is an abomination. It’s a nothing colour. It doesn’t shout “drab”; it murmurs it. What a tragic mutation from the vibrant red and blue of those Obama posters emblazoned with the word “HOPE”. It is as if Obama’s taste in decoration is a symbol of the energy that has leeched out of his presidency, culminating in those awful midterm election results last week. The virtues he had then have become his faults now.

Remember how appealing the “no-drama Obama” was during the presidential election campaign? We marvelled at his imperturbability. Nothing fazed him. His Republican opponent, John McCain, became increasingly tetchy during the campaign, which made voters wonder whether they wanted a President who might lose his rag under pressure. With Obama, there was never any danger of that. And, given that Lehman Brothers was collapsing and looked as if it might bring the world financial system down with it, a leader who was calm under duress seemed exactly what America – and the rest of the world – needed.

Two years on, US voters are beginning to question that judgment. They want their President to understand what they are going through, to empathise with their worry, their anger and their insecurity. They are either terrified of losing their jobs and their homes, or furious that it has already happened. They no longer want to be governed by someone with the demeanour (and decorating taste) of a Harvard law professor or a management consultant.

At the beginning of his presidency, this cool, calculating approach was rather refreshing. Obama wasn’t going to be rushed into a decision on Afghanistan. He was going to ask the experts, take his time, and come up with a well thought-through strategy. In the end, though, the time he took was interminable, and the thinking- through looked more like dithering.

It was the same with the BP oil leak. Obama waited weeks before going down to Louisiana and showing local residents that he understood how it was wrecking the coastline and their lives. Admittedly, this was different from Hurricane Katrina, in that he couldn’t simply mobilise federal forces to sort the problem out. The only people who knew how to cap the well were BP managers themselves – and they turned out to be lamentably bad at it. But Obama still showed a lack of emotional intelligence in his response.

Given how emotionally engaging his campaign was, this was very odd. Politicians often talk of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, but rarely has the contrast been so great.

The political scientist James MacGregor Burns, who has written biographies of Washington, Roosevelt and Kennedy as well as an influential book called Leadership, coined the terms “transformational” and “transactional” leadership.

Transformational leaders inspire and excite their followers, and bring a moral dimension to their vision. A transactional leader merely promises jobs or a new bridge in return for a vote. Obama campaigned as a transformational leader but has governed as a transactional one. He has thrown himself into making deals with Congress rather than uplifting the nation.

It’s as if he’s lost his mojo. The charisma he displayed so powerfully in winning the presidency has dried up. And when voters complain of his coolness and emotional detachment, it is because the emotional connection they once felt for him is fraying. Last week, when Obama gave a press conference to react to the “shellacking” he had received from the American people, he displayed all the passion of a widget company chief executive announcing his third-quarter results. Even in person, this President lacks warmth. One senior British Cabinet minister who has met both Obama and Bush was struck by how oddly cool the current President was. Bush had put his arm round this politician, who was tempted to do the same back. “You would never be tempted to do that with Obama,” he says. “It’s just the aura he gives out.”

From this side of the Atlantic, it is sometimes hard to see what the problem is. We look at his legislative achievements like healthcare reform. But what we often fail to understand is that a US president is not just a prime minister; he is effectively king too. Prime ministers can be cool and detached as long as they are competent, but heads of state have to touch citizens’ hearts as well as their heads. A head of state has to “stand tall”, as Ronald Reagan famously put it.

I was working in Washington in 1984 during the Reagan/Mondale campaign, and I remember thinking that the best ticket would be Reagan for king and Walter Mondale for prime minister. Reagan had shown no enthusiasm for policy detail, he demanded briefing papers that were no longer than a page, and he didn’t seem on top of the issues. But it didn’t matter. He won by a landslide because – after Johnson and Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, Ford’s general uselessness, and Carter’s Iranian hostage crisis – Americans were desperate to feel good about America again.

In Britain we don’t demand quite so much from our prime ministers. We already have a Queen who symbolises our nation. And because we’re less touchy-feely, we don’t normally need her to emote – merely to look serene and talk comfortingly next to her Christmas tree. But even we feel uncomfortable with leaders who are too unemotional. William Hague – a trained management consultant, perhaps not coincidentally – was also preternaturally calm. Rather than seeing this as admirable we found it a bit weird. So did his colleagues. They expected him to notice when they were annoyed or wanted attention. He didn’t, because he never felt like that himself.

Hague is a man with low emotional needs. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t crave approbation. He is rarely, if ever, roused to anger. So he was perplexed by his colleagues’ behaviour. And, just as he didn’t understand what they were feeling, he didn’t understand what voters were feeling either.

We don’t like histrionic: the sight of Neil Kinnock screaming at the Sheffield rally in 1992 was as disturbing as the triumphalism he was displaying. But we want to be sure that our leaders have normal human reactions. David Cameron seems pretty calm, particularly compared to the raging Gordon Brown. So when he admits to feeling “really very, very angry” about something, we are not worried that he is going to start hurling his mobile phone around the room, but are reassured that he has the usual range of emotions.

For Tea Party supporters, by contrast, Obama’s narrow range of emotions, from Zen-like to mildly irritated, is immensely frustrating. The more angry they feel about him, the less he reacts. Anyone who has had a fight with a partner or a parent will know how annoying this is. You want them to shout back, not to smile delphically and look utterly unmoved.

So often in politics, leaders’ strengths become their weaknesses as soon as voters fall out of love with them. Margaret Thatcher’s determination became seen as obduracy. Tony Blair’s charm became insincerity.

And now it’s Barack Obama’s turn. His unflappability under fire may end up as his biggest political handicap.

One Response to “Obama’s strength is now his weakness”

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