President Barack Obama was born the summer of '61, the year Cool blossomed in the culture, like the runaway tulip craze in Holland three or four centuries ago. Stay with me while I go back there to an electric new era.
John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on a snow-bright January day at noon with the aging poet Robert Frost there to recite. Kennedy looked impossibly handsome and hip without a hat favored by all the old men, notably outgoing president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who presided over the staid suburban 1950s. Young Bob Dylan started singing in haunts like the Gaslight in Greenwich Village that same year. People went wild for the musical film about love caught in the crossfire between two street gangs in West Side Story, which celebrated Cool in a catchy dance song.
Today, Mad Men is a hit TV show capturing the early '60s Zeitgeist of sunglassses, ironic distance, and a certain, well, breezy and cool dress and demeanor. The classic cultural paradigm embodied by Jack and Jackie still can do no wrong.
In a revealing line in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama talks of the importance of looking cool at all times in the front he put up as a young man. And as a few pundits note, that pose has lately become a problem for his presidency.
In times of trouble, the American people like to see their president knock himself out. They don't like to see him watch the game. In an elemental way, they like to see him hang tough with his friends, not reach out to his enemies. It took the Coolest kid in school (read: Washington) the longest time to get that he even had enemies just like the Sharks and the Jets. He thought he could "friend" the Republicans in Congress and make Nobel-winning peace early on because, after all, he was Barack Obama. (And I like the guy!)
Bill Clinton, say what you will, faced his enemies down, knew their names and numbers, and did fierce battle with them. That's the only way to win on a world political stage not so different from the way the Bard wrote for one long ago on the Thames.
Scholars and authors on the presidency compare Obama to JFK above all others, because of their elegant way with words and detached way of looking at the world—out a window. You never saw Jack Kennedy break a sweat or pound a lectern or bare his soul in his thousand days. It's worth remembering the first Cool president was patrician, certainly not a man of the people.
The second coming of Cool to the White House similarly needs to sacrifice some sangfroid for the good of the party. Substance and style go hand in hand, like message and delivery.
Come the late fall, Obama will not be on the midterm ballot but the election is all about him. Jumping unto the partisan fray is messy, but the times, they a'changed a little while ago. And he has no choice but to change, too, the general sense that he is watching nation's travails from the White House window. The charm of the intellectual Harvard Law man is wearing off.
To his credit, Obama is belatedly learning on the job that sometimes it's not cool to be Cool. His battle plan strategy should be kept simple: embrace your friends and hurt your foes with a full heart as well as mind.
To borrow from Frost, in a raging storm, the public yearns to see fire, not ice, from the president.