Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Passion of the Prez

Neal Gabler has a piece in the Boston Globe that I read this morning — and it's been on my mind all day.

Gabler makes the case that Barack Obama lacks passion — and I agree with him.

"Obama acts as if he were a Solomon who always chooses to cut the baby in half," Gabler writes. To be blunt, "Obama seems to be missing the passion gene."

Gabler reminds readers of a few things:

"[W]hat few seemed to foresee is just how diffident he would be, how unmoved he seems to be, at least publicly, by the plight of the jobless, those who are struggling to afford health care, or the soldiers who must fight our battles. You wonder what, if anything, can really get his dander up, which is not a good thing to wonder."

Certainly, it isn't a good thing to wonder about a president.

Gabler has some political and cultural excuses, even personal ones, for Obama's apologists to use in his defense.

"Obama may feel that he is so circumscribed by the Republican obstructionists that fighting more forcefully may not only be useless but counterproductive," he writes.

"Part of this may also be cultural. The last thing Obama wants to be perceived as is an angry black man, which may be why he feels he has to modulate everything he does, lest he give his enemies yet another point of attack. And part of it may be personal history. As the child of two idealistic but flighty parents whose heads were in the clouds, Obama seems to have made every attempt to be grounded. He is nothing if not calm, practical, and realistic — 'careful not to expect too much,' as he put it in Dreams from My Father."

I find it ironic that Gabler alleges that Obama has delivered the presidency that Michael Dukakis promised the American people two decades ago — "cautious, deliberative, reasonable, experienced, not terribly ideological and entirely competent."

In case you've forgotten, Dukakis was criticized during the 1988 campaign for being something of a dead fish. He lacked passion, it was said, especially when answering a hypothetical debate question about whether he would favor the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife.

Regardless of which end of the political spectrum they occupy, Americans like to know that their president believes in something, even if they don't agree with him. They want to feel that he is motivated by their best interests, and he will be their advocate. Gabler's most damning indictment of Obama, I think, is when he writes that George W. Bush did have passion.

"[T]he American people often don't care what a president is passionate about, so long as he is passionate," Gabler writes. "If George W. Bush had nothing else — and he didn't have much — he at least had that going for him. He might have been wrong, but he gave the sense that he wasn't about to be deterred. He knew that splitting the difference is not the road to presidential accomplishment. You must believe."

There were many occasions this time last year when I heard people refer to Obama as a latter–day FDR, a transformational figure poised to take the helm of the ship of state and guide it out of choppy waters. But there was a key difference between the two men, as Gabler observes.

FDR, he wrote, "was elected more on hope than on passion, but he quickly energized the nation, not by being temperate or lusting for compromise but by calling for boldness. There was something fearless about FDR. He didn't mince policies or words. When the economic interests opposed him, he said, 'I welcome their hatred.' Above all, he gave the sense that he cared deeply, that there were some initiatives too important to treat as if they were business as usual, that he wasn't about to go down without a fight. In short, he gave the sense that he had the passion of his convictions, which helped through political osmosis embolden the country as well."

It's my guess that played a big role in FDR being elected president four times.

It's also my guess that the absence of that passion may work against Obama in 2012.

1 comment:

askcherlock said...

Norman Mailer used to write about "the fire in the belly." That seems to be the missing ingredient in Obama. He has become a disappointing appeaser.