President Obama is a cool customer. He doesn't seem to get really angry, depressed, or frustrated or to lose control of his emotions.
And that's the problem. To some of his supporters, Obama is presiding over a passionless presidency. He seems too cerebral and personally disengaged from the problems of everyday Americans. Some have compared him to Mr. Spock, the brainy and aloof Vulcan of the Star Trek movie and TV series who tried to base his decisions totally on reason and logic.
In a recent interview, Obama told me that his goal is to "make decisions based on information and not emotions." Actor Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock on Star Trek, even weighed in. "I guess it's somewhat unusual for a politician to be so precise, logical, in his thought process. The comparison to Spock is, in my opinion, a compliment to him and to the character." And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says, "He doesn't get real high or real low." Gibbs adds that Americans should be comforted by Obama's steadiness.
When emotions well up, Obama prefers to be alone with his thoughts. Aides say that was his pattern on an October 29 predawn visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to mark the return of 18 flag-draped caskets containing soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan. On the helicopter ride back to Washington, the president thanked his military aide, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Beers, for helping to arrange the visit and then fell silent for the reminder of the 45-minute flight. "It really gets to you," says a White House official who was there. "How could it not get to you?" Obama was also somber but stoic after visiting the graves of fallen troops at Arlington National Cemetery for Veterans Day in November.
"He takes these things as they come," says a senior White House adviser, referring not only to the toll of war but to the frequent crises that Obama has been facing. "Not once have I seen him throw up his hands and say, 'How do we deal with all of this?' That's not his makeup. That's not his style." The adviser says, "Throughout these 10 months, the most emotional reactions I've seen from him all have to do with our troops." What did cause a rare uptick in Obama's emotional level were leaks of sensitive wartime deliberations among his advisers. At a November 11 meeting of his national security aides, Obama showed a flash of anger. "What I'm not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room," the president said. "It's a disservice to the process, to the country, and to the men and women of the military."
Other presidents have shown emotion on occasion. It wasn't unusual for Harry Truman to get angry when someone criticized his family. He famously threatened to punch a newspaper critic for mocking the musical abilities of his daughter, Margaret, a professional singer.
Lyndon Johnson had a volcanic temper, and he let it show when something went wrong. Richard Nixon was very controlled in public, but in private he would fume and curse his adversaries. He even had his aides compile an "enemies list." Bill Clinton had a flash-and-fade temper, which would erupt suddenly and then disappear. But he also was known for empathizing with people who were down on their luck.
George W. Bush seemed to get more emotional as time went on, despite his initial image as a swaggering cowboy. In April 2008, Bush wept openly when he posthumously awarded Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor the Medal of Honor for courage in Iraq.
As for President Obama, some of his friends and advisers admit that perhaps he does need to show his personal side more often. This is key as he tries to generate support for the surge of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan. "He is asking soldiers to fight and maybe to die," says a Democratic strategist. "It's important for him to show he believes deeply in the mission."
Obama recently told 60 Minutes that he considered his December 1 speech at West Point announcing the surge "probably the most emotional speech that I've made." Yet his feelings were not very much in evidence. He came across as almost totally analytical.