A True Test for 'No Drama Obama'

The shaky health care rollout will test the limits of Obama's detached approach to governance.

By + More

Well, so much for "No Drama Obama."

That was a moniker from the 2008 campaign, and it went to Obama's basic coolness – not in the sense that he was young and appealed to young voters, but in the sense that he kept his cool. Obama as a candidate and as a president has not displayed any public bursts of anger or frustration. He doesn't just go around firing people in a snit because things aren't going well.

That approach is in some ways necessary for Obama in particular, because he is going to be judged differently because he is African-American. Just as a woman might be judged more harshly for showing any sort of "weak" emotion (such as tears), Obama would have alienated some people if he had fed some stereotype as the Angry Black Man. Bill Clinton had a temper, and George W. Bush had a strong (even bullying) swagger. But those were accepted by the public. Obama could not behave that way without being criticized or even feared for it.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

That's not to say this in an affect; Obama is, simply, a pretty calm guy. He's not a hugger, and he's not a yeller. This has been a source of annoyance for both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. Liberal Democrats have been frustrated by what they see as a weak response to GOP intransigence (thought that criticism dissipated a bit after Obama stood up to House Republicans on the debt ceiling). And Republicans have seemed agitated over the fact that they just can't get a rise out of Obama – not publically, anyway. They hurl all sorts of criticisms and accusations at the president, and his response has been similar to the response mothers give when their teenage daughters (inevitably, one day) yell out, "I HATE you!" He just sort of shrugs and gets on with it.

The advantage to not reacting strongly is that it reassures the public that someone is keeping cool when all hell is breaking loose – it makes the rest of us feel more comfortable in flying off the handle when we know someone in charge is keeping an even keel. The problem, however, is that acting completely sanguine when things are going wrong gives people the impression that their leader simply doesn't care, or doesn't understand how upset/angry/frustrated they are.

Bill Clinton was a master at this, from his "I feel your pain" comments to his poignant speeches after a tragedy. Ronald Reagan had a way of making you feel like it was all going to be all right just because we are all Americans. And Bush, with his aggressive response to the 9/11 attacks, turned anger into an asset. We were all angry, and we needed to see that our president was angry, too.

It's a sign of how the different presidents' personal styles affect public perception that Bush – who famously declared to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" is still very much associated with the so-called "war on terror." Obama actually succeeded in killing bin Laden by ordering the Navy Seals mission that did just that – but his critics, and even some sort of in the middle, barely give him credit for it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

The health care troubles will test Obama, who needs to reassure people while displaying some visible sign that he gets how nervous and angry and frustrated people are. He arguably made a mistake already in trying to calm people for too long when the exchange websites weren't working, or when people were getting cancelation notices from their insurance companies. Obama surely deserves criticism for how this rolled out – and he did, yesterday, acknowledge that – but it's remarkable that people aren't directing their anger at the insurance companies themselves.

I met a man in Florida this week who had been getting his health insurance through his wife, who works at a hospital. Then the hospital announced it was thinking of dropping spouse and family plans, so the man went on the exchange website and figured insurance would cost him $10,000 a year. I don't know if he had really shopped around for a plan or considered his options (or whether that was the price for a gold plan). And it ended up being moot, since the hospital decided to keep spousal plans after all. But what was remarkable was that he didn't blame the insurance company or the hospital for cutting a benefit it had been providing for many years. He blamed Obama.

The drama over this health law is not remotely over, nor should anyone have expected everything to go off without a hitch. It's a big change in the way we handle a fundamental part of our lives. But the president can't just be above it all.

  • Read Eric Schnurer: The Deficit and Debt Are Caused by Baby Boomers, Not Socialism
  • Read Susan Milligan: CBS' Benghazi Report Damages Media Credibility
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad