In June 2009, President Obama was hosting a press conference and much of the White House press corps was focused on Iranian leaders cracking down on reform-minded protestors. NBC’s Chuck Todd urged Obama to “spell out the consequences” for Iran if the violence continued.
The president didn’t take the bait, and clearly saw no value in making ultimatums. “We don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out,” Obama said. Pressed further, the president delivered 13 memorable words: “I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not.”
As far as I know, no one in the Beltway has ever explicitly said so, but I’ve often wondered how many of the president’s media critics were tempted to respond, “Why not?”
Matt Yglesias published a much-discussed piece the other day on the president’s even-keeled temperament, even during crises, which much of the media just doesn’t like. Matt referenced this piece from Josh Green, who was critical of Obama’s technocratic approach that denies “the public’s emotional needs” and neglects “the performative aspects” of the presidency.
The trouble, as Yglesias’ piece makes clear, is that Obama’s style actually works pretty well.
[A]n aversion to purely symbolic action has genuinely served Obama well at critical moments. Less cool heads would have abandoned Obamacare in January 2010. Obama persevered and it’s worked. Obama’s approach to the economy has been far from flawless, but it’s not a coincidence that the USA has performed better since 2008 than Europe or the United Kingdom and weathered its financial crisis far better than Japan did in the 1990s.The Deepwater Horizon crisis passed. The American Ebola crisis will also pass. HealthCare.gov got fixed. The Russian economy is reeling in the face of sanctions. Osama bin Laden is dead. The economy is growing. Obama hasn’t always been a very effective pundit-in-chief (acute crisis moments aside, his inability to articulate public anger at Wall Street has been remarkable) but that’s not actually his job. On the big stuff, he’s been effective. And that’s not a coincidence.
Kevin Drum is thinking along similar lines: “Obama may not always give us the emotional sustenance we want, or mount a pretense of whirlwind action to satisfy the cable nets, but he gets things done. Anyone who can count on their fingers can pretty easily figure out, for example, that he’s had a more successful presidency than either Clinton or Bush. Slow and steady doesn’t win every race, but it wins a lot of them.”
I’m hardly the first to note this, but one of the great ironies of Obama’s presidency is that most of the assumptions about Candidate Obama turned out to be backwards – sure he can deliver uplifting oratory or inspire supporters with emotional appeals, observers said in 2007 and 2008, but is Obama equipped to deal with the unglamorous, day-to-day work of governing?
Six years later, the president has proven himself to be an adept manager and policymaker, only to find the Beltway pondering Obama’s disregard for “the performative aspects” of the presidency.
There’s obviously a disconnect, going back to the Obama-Todd exchange from June 2009, between what the Political World wants and what Obama is prepared to feed the machine. The demand for constant action and updates, complete with imagery and emotional appeal, is constant, and the president simply hasn’t cared. He probably never will.
It’s led to countless pieces scrutinizing the president’s policies less on the merits and more on their capacity to be emotionally satisfying. Obama is often expected to respond to crises the way a pundit would, and when he doesn’t, his actions are deemed necessarily flawed, often with little regard for merit.
And this might even be vaguely compelling if the president’s preferred approach didn’t end up working quite so often.
I probably watch too many Ken Burns documentaries, but I often find myself wondering how historians will reflect on this era. Will Obama be seen as the overly cool president who failed to connect, or the man whose grace under fire met the nation’s needs during tumultuous times?
Time will tell, of course, but with the benefit of time, “detached” can become “unflappable.” A president’s reluctance to pander to the passions of the day may yet be seen as a leader’s desire to keep a steady hand on the wheel.