When you lead the free world, everything matters. Including tone. Although substantive policy traditionally drives and defines the electorate (mandating individual healthcare coverage versus permitting individuals to choose insurance, for example), the manner in which the president approaches his job also serves as a nuanced tool of persuasion.
This political reality makes it all the more curious that the man who ran and won perhaps the most well-orchestrated and enthusiastic presidential election since John F. Kennedy seems, well, just plain distant.
Critics from both parties generally share this observation. Conservatives argue that President Obama's failure to wade into murky political waters (this month the topic du jour is the federal budget) demonstrates a leadership deficit and a default on the "purple America" he promised during his campaign. Liberals, disappointed that Obama hasn't implemented what they thought would be the new New Deal or at least the new Great Society, decry him for failure to act on critical environmental policy or refusing to more rapidly withdrawal U.S. forces from the Middle East. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on President Obama.]
Whatever your quarrel with the president, he cannot be accused of a heavy-handed approach. The man who famously promised a new era of leadership, who craved every second of each crowded public forum, town hall, and television interview has, at least personally, all but retreated into the shadows. On the two most significant legislative items of his presidency—the federal stimulus and the new healthcare law—President Obama simply told Congress to "work it out," and then accepted their work with little to no modification. Obama assembled a bipartisan all-star deficit commission who worked diligently, disagreed, made compromises, and presented their findings. The president's response to that work? He included virtually none of their recommendations into his most recent fiscal budget. Moreover, President Obama appears to have ceded all foreign policy oversight to Vice President Joe Biden. Those of us who glance at the president and vice president's public daily schedules note that Biden spends significantly (an understatement) more time talking, thinking, and crafting U.S. foreign policy.
For presidents, how much leadership to employ proves a difficult needle to thread. Lead boldly with a balanced hand, and you are Teddy Roosevelt—“The Man in the Arena.” Ignore Congress, plow the only row yourself, and you are George W. Bush—frequently accused of unconstitutionally expanding the reach of the executive branch. [Vote now: What grade o you give Obama?]
It would be easier to decipher Obama’s public reluctance had he not campaigned as the swashbuckling, post-Baby Boomer insistent that only he could save America from itself. Obama, the ubiquitous candidate, graced the cover of pop culture magazines, appeared on daytime talk shows, and shaped virtually all streams of news media. A safe bet would have pegged President Obama stylistically more like Reagan than Coolidge. (“Silent Cal” as President Coolidge was known, was said to so intently dislike conversation that a female dinner guest once enticed him: “I bet my husband I could get you to say three words.” “You lose,” Coolidge responded.)
Whether Obama is disappointed with the day-to-day grind of executing versus campaigning, obsessed with the looming 2012 reelection or (gasp) possibly even experiencing buyer’s remorse, we cannot decipher. Republicans should be wary of growing too excited with Obama’s understatedapproach. While many GOP strategists view his lack of the grandiose as a positive, we should also remember that silent is the cat that swallowed the canary. [Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor guide.]
Watch to see how Obama couches his leadership skills as an asset during the reelection campaign. For better or for worse, it is safe to say that he is a much different public president than most Americans thought he would be.