Now that the election is over, as it seems to be, why Obama won and McCain lost seems surprisingly obvious – Obama was cool, and McCain was hot. McCain was all passion – righteous anger or weird humor, and wild and dramatic gestures, like suspending his campaign to go butt heads in Washington and fix the economy once and for all, and his enthusiasm about Sarah Palin and later Joe the Plumber. He wanted to show you his passion about this or that – one day we were all Georgians and the next warriors for a new Wal-Mart store in Baghdad. It was tiresome and a little repellent – save for his base that wanted red meat, as they say, no one was that impressed with his passion about this or that. But that’s what he was selling.
Obama was all calm and cool professionalism, and his speeches spoke to what we could do together, if we thought about things and didn’t cheat and fall back into useless posturing. He was cool, and that was engaging. He wasn’t badgering us about duty and honor and country, and preening about himself. He was saying, over and over, think about this, and about that, and about this other idea, and imagine what we could do to make things better. McCain may have been pleasantly self-deprecating at times – on the Letterman Show and Saturday Night Live – but Obama seemed to have entirely rejected the idea of marketing himself, or any sort of self. Sure, he had an amazing personal story – not the war hero stuff of John McCain, but astounding in its own way – but he didn’t push it. What would be the point? Things needed to be fixed – the economy, healthcare, our two major wars and our relationships with other nations – and maybe there was a better way to deal with terrorism and Iran and climate change and our need for energy and lack of oil reserves. With all these thorny issues, why would he talk about himself? To do so would not only be stupid, it just wouldn’t be cool.
So in the primaries, when Hillary Clinton demanded that everyone admire her passion and how much she cared, about whatever issue her research team suggested that week, Obama would say he admired her passion, and respected that, and then went on to explain, in some detail, just how this thing or the other was a problem, and that there were now some good ways to address each problem, which he’d list, and he didn’t talk about himself. Cool kids don’t do that. He was cool, to her hot. It was more compelling. He did the same to McCain.
Americans love cool, and have since the fifties – Miles Davis and Jack Kerouac to Steve McQueen to George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Anyone who is full of himself and asks you to admire his wild enthusiasm and subsequent lack of self-control is a dweeb. Cool competence and grace under pressure matter much more, or may be all that matters. Hell, maybe Hemingway started all that back in the twenties – Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises – you may be flawed but you do your best, with intelligence and care, and you don’t talk about it, damn it.
There is a reason this worked for Obama. Yeah, yeah – you can talk all you want about Marshall McLuhan – “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue.” But there’s something there – the medium may well be the message. Hillary Clinton and John McCain asked for our admiration and thus, oddly enough, excluded us. This actually excluded participation. Obama seemed reluctant to talk about himself – he would always turn things to the issues and possible ways to deal with those – and that made us comfortable with him, or made enough of us comfortable with him. McCain would ask again and again, just who was the real Obama? No one much cared – Obama was the cool guy who was working out ways to make things better, who didn’t have time for such nonsense. McCain practically screamed LOOK AT ME! In the end that turned out to be just embarrassing – not cool.
All that is over now, and the question becomes whether Obama can govern as a “cool president.” We’ve never had one of those, save for perhaps Kennedy, but only at times. Passive, disinterested and oblivious don’t count, as Kennedy was all of those with civil rights issues and a few other matters – that’s not the same as cool. As for George Bush, not being aware, and if aware not giving a damn, doesn’t count either – that’s how dorks understand “cool.” We’re in uncharted waters with Obama.
The first indication of how this is going to work out for us all came on Thursday, January 8, with Obama’s major speech on the economic collapse:
President-elect Barack Obama implored Congress on Thursday to “act boldly and act now” to fix an economy growing perilously weaker. Democratic and Republican lawmakers complained about his tax policies, letting Obama know they intend to place their own stamp on the economic recovery effort.
Leading lawmakers set an informal goal of mid-February for enacting tax cuts and government spending that could cost as much as $1 trillion.
He has a plan, and he has opposition:
A call for a $3,000 tax break for job creation drew particular criticism in a private meeting, and numerous lawmakers said Obama had not ticketed enough of his tax proposal for energy projects. The second-guessing game from the left and the right: While some Democrats said the incoming administration’s proposed tax cuts were too small, Republicans warned against excessive new spending.
And he says we’re in deep trouble:
An updated reading on unemployment was expected to bring even more bad news on Friday. “If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years,” with unemployment reaching double digits, Obama said in a speech at George Mason University in suburban Virginia. “A bad situation could become dramatically worse.”
No one disagreed – and this was a change from the usual claim that everything is fine, and sensible people see no real problem. Cool leaders don’t lie to keep up morale. That’s just not cool:
In his speech, Obama said more bad news was just ahead. He predicted that on Friday, “We are likely to learn that we lost more jobs last year than at any time since World War II.”
There were two government reports released within hours of his speech, both showing more weakness in the economy.
One said consumer borrowing – credit card use and items such as new auto loans – plunged by $7.94 billion in November, a record amount in dollar terms.
A second said more men and women were drawing jobless benefits last week than at any time since the 1982 recession. Joblessness was 6.7 percent in the government’s most recent report before Friday’s new figures.
There’s just a general plan:
Obama’s aides and congressional Democrats have worked for weeks on legislation to create jobs, help the unemployed, cut taxes and aid cash-strapped states. Obama sent his chief political strategist, David Axelrod, and incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as well as other aides to the Capitol for a series of meetings with lawmakers.
The measure probably will include a bewildering array of provisions – from subsidies to help the newly unemployed afford their health care to a massive new effort to improve the energy efficiency of federal buildings.
Congress will try to get something together, by the day Obama is sworn is. That’s unlikely, but could happen.
So how did this first speech go? Was it cool?
In Slate, John Dickerson offers Obama’s Alarm Call:
How does a leader known for his equanimity convey a sense of panic? This was part of Barack Obama’s task Thursday as he delivered the most presidential speech he can give without having the official seal. Unless Congress acts within the next few weeks on his economic stimulus package, he said, “Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”
It was a governing speech by a man who is not yet (technically, at least) governing. And in giving it, Obama gave us clues not just about how he will handle Congress, but whether he can use his own popularity to bring about the change he’s promised.
Can cool triumph? Dickerson senses more of the same:
For a president who has repeatedly promised an entirely new way of doing business in Washington, Obama’s address had a deep familiarity: Doom was its central and recurring message. Obama promised that the stimulus bill would embody his new approach, yet in pitching it, he mirrored the all the usual messages we’ve heard from Washington in the last half year: Unless the federal government acts quickly and boldly (and expensively), the roof is going to cave in.
People have rightly learned to grow suspicious of big, complicated legislation enacted quickly. “It’s the George Bush problem all over again,” said one think tank veteran who largely approves of the legislation. Not even those working on the legislation think that a bill produced as fast as Obama and Democratic leaders want can also be as free from political self-interest or simple sloppiness as they claim.
But Obama is cool enough to realize that:
Obama recognizes that people have heard his message before, and he knows they are skeptical about government action. “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth,” he said, “but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.” The urgency of the moment made the declaration feel definitive, like Reagan’s declaration in 1981 that “government is the problem” or Clinton’s claim in 1996 that the “era of big government is over.”
And anyway, his audience wasn’t us:
As we watch the president-elect try to graft his popularity onto Washington institutions, we’re also watching how he exerts pressure on those institutions. “The message to Congress was, ‘Watch out,’ ” said one Washington policy veteran, approvingly, after watching the speech. Obama allowed that there should be “open and honest discussion” about the legislation, but he doesn’t expect it to last very long. Since he has proclaimed quick action will happen only if members of Congress “trade old habits for a new responsibility,” the obvious conclusion seemed to be that delay will mean Congress is incapable of acting responsibly.
Well, maybe he was sticking it to Congress, very publicly. That’s one way to see it, but not the only way to see it. Also in Slate, Jack Shafer argues Obama was calming a panicked nation, as that too is important, or even more important.
And this is where cool matters, as Shafer explains in Soother in Chief:
When these frightful times of financial confusion and credit constipation become too much, I dial up Barack Obama on YouTube to suppress my anxieties. The Voice works like aerosolized Paxil on my limbic system, reducing my blood pressure and lifting my mood.
If this president thing doesn’t work out for him, I’m sure Obama could make a living recording evacuation tapes for the airline industry: “The aircraft … in which you are seated … is falling … at a rate that Bernoulli’s principle … cannot overcome. … As we crash … into the tarmac … please remain calm … unbuckle your safety belts … and walk in an orderly fashion … to the marked exits … to deplane.”
Well, it was like that:
Obama promises a grim recession that “could linger for years,” produce a double-digit unemployment rate, and destroy a “generation of potential and promise” if his package doesn’t pass. But when I watched him in the video below, flanked by a pair of U.S. flags as if still campaigning for the job that he won two months ago, he made me feel oddly good about the challenges of coming economic Armageddon.
That’s a neat trick, and Shafer explains how it works:
For one thing, he’s better at remaining calmer and more deliberate in his speech patter than John Wayne in a firefight – and better at it than any politician since Ronald Reagan. If he’s calm, I’m calm – even if my portfolio was last sighted burning its way to the bottom of the Bentley Subglacial Trench.
And it helps to be a bit vague regarding blame and pain:
Adopting a slightly scolding tone in today’s speech without accusing anybody by name, he blamed such abstract scourges as corporate boardrooms, Wall Street, banks, “the halls of power in Washington, D.C.,” and borrowers who took out loans they couldn’t repay for the crisis. But like a dad who is tough-loving his wayward children back in line, he calls on us to “trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility.” Yes, we can be redeemed! Painting a sunshine-and-lollipop vista of fuel-efficient cars, high-quality health care, better schools, “new discoveries and entire new industries,” a smart electric grid, and job security for cops and firefighters has a way of accentuating gain over pain.
Avoiding talk about pain is one of his secrets. If there is a downside to Obama’s “Recovery and Reinvestment” – or even a chance the Recovery and Reinvestment scheme won’t work – he shares not a peep. How much will this Recovery and Reinvestment operation cost? Obama wisely avoids putting a price tag on it. But, again, it’s not what Obama says that narcotizes the citizenry, but the way he says it. He can’t possibly be certain that his plan will work, but he sells it as a done, settled deal, never showing a speck of doubt.
And Shafer is impressed with how settled Obama seems, which is actually nothing new:
At the exceedingly short press conferences that follow the introduction of some new administration hire, Obama often answers by saying he’s answered that question before. Asked about the Iranian bomb on Nov. 7, he said, “Let me state – repeat what I stated during the course of the campaign.” “Well, let me repeat a couple of things,” he said on Dec. 11 when asked about Gov. Blagojevich’s contact with his staff. When that didn’t shake the reporters, he repeated his repetition. “In terms of our involvement, I’ll repeat what I said earlier, which is I had no contact with the governor’s office.”
Shafer gives more examples of what he calls Obama’s thanks-for-that-redundant-question response, and they all come down to being cool and calm – been there, done that. Shafer says when you read them they sound snooty, but no when you watch the video clips:
Everything is under control. All contingencies have been considered. The ship is sailing straight and true.
But sometimes he cannot get away with that:
The Obama pacification express slows, however, when the press corps refuses to let him determine when an issue is “settled,” as happened at a March press conference. As this clip illustrates, the Tony Rezko controversy wasn’t going to disappear just because Obama thought his answers had vanquished it. “Come on, guys, I answered, like, eight questions. We’re running late,” Obama said as he retreated. It so shattered my vision of Obama that my acid reflux was out of control for a week.
Well, no one is perfect.
There’s also discussion of all the talk about bipartisanship, what Shafer calls Obama’s old “there is no red-state America, there is no blue-state America” shtick. It works, even if it’s corny.
And there’s this:
“One of the keys to being well liked in Washington is to appear humble, which is why Washington is so full of people who are so unhumble when it comes to touting how humble they are. All of this comes naturally to Obama,” Mark Leibovich wrote four years ago in an Obama profile for the Washington Post.
If I understand Leibovich correctly – and I think I do – we like Obama because he’s likable, and he’s likable because 1) he knows how to be likable, and 2) he wants to be likable.
Barack Obama, the ocean that refuses no river, will remain everybody’s best friend until he makes his first tough decision. Only then shall we really begin to know him.
Maybe so, but as long as he’s cool, we are.
And there’s his competence. See Fred Kaplan with A Return to Professionalism, about what Obama’s Pentagon hires say about his presidential style:
Obama proposes to have an experienced manager managing the Pentagon, an experienced policy wonk running policy, and a comptroller among comptrollers keeping track of the budget.
Click on the link to find just who they are, although you’ve never heard of them. And compare and contrast:
Bush’s first deputy secretary of defense was Paul Wolfowitz, who – even his neoconservative pals acknowledged – was ill-equipped to manage a large bureaucracy. And his first undersecretary of defense for policy was Douglas Feith, a sort of Wolfowitz mini-me who served with unseemly relish as Donald Rumsfeld’s inner circle’s main thug.
It comes down to this:
There’s something refreshing about the prospect of an intellectually engaged president who absorbs a wide range of views and takes responsibility for his subsequent actions. Still, Obama will be relying on those views as the inputs for his policymaking, and it’s not yet clear how wide-ranging this group’s views will be. Competence doesn’t necessarily yield wisdom. Professionalism can breed narrow-mindedness at least as readily as it sparks creative bursts.
At least he’ll be getting advice and assistance from people who know their assigned areas – and how to carry out policies once they’re formed. That alone marks a dramatic change from much of the last eight years. But what the government does, where the country goes, and how it all works out will ultimately come down to Obama.
That’s okay – he’s cool.
For a giggle also see, from last July in the Boston Globe, Mark Oppenheimer, with Charm School – “Scholars unpack the secrets of charisma, and suggest the elusive quality can be taught.”
That opens with this:
Even diehard Republicans can’t deny that Barack Obama is the more charismatic candidate for president this year. He has shown unprecedented power to raise money and to draw crowds – from Oregon to Pennsylvania, tens of thousands have turned out to hear Obama speak. Can one imagine John McCain trying to fill a football stadium for his nomination acceptance speech, as Obama plans to do in Denver next month? Obama’s crowds during the primary season were not only the biggest of all candidates, but the most enthusiastic, with the weepiest adults and the most children held aloft on shoulders.
Obama is not the first politician to have worldwide, rock-star appeal, as a January newspaper headline from Frankfurt reminds us: “Lincoln, Kennedy, Obama.” Throughout history, certain people have seemed to possess an unusual, even inborn power to command attention. The Greeks called it charisma, meaning “gift,” and that sums up perfectly the popular view of this trait: that it’s something mysterious, not earned but given, by God or by fortunate genetics. Some people just seem to have it.
But some scholars think we can do better. Charisma, they argue, can be analyzed, understood, and broken down into parts.
Go to the link if you want to find out how to be charismatic, or cool. Oppenheimer reviews all the research. But he cannot help you match this:
Barack Obama embodies many contradictions. He is both black (his father) and white (his mother); from an exotic locale (by birth in Hawaii) and from a big city (by residence in Chicago); and Christian (by choice) and non-Christian (with two irreligious parents, one of them with Muslim ancestry). And surely these contradictions lend him an air of vulnerability and approachability. But Obama’s contradictions don’t quite make him a [Princess] Diana figure. Rather, Obama shows how charisma can reside in other people’s desire to figure one out. “He seems so familiar,” Roach says. “But what could be more definitive of strangeness than to be running for president of the United States in 2008 with the name Barack Hussein Obama? But he holds those together. We’re fascinated by the ability to hold contradictions and make them seem harmonious.”
You have to develop your own amazing background. And you still may not be cool.
But we do have our first cool president. It’s a new age.