Maureen Dowd's column today hits on something she's been tuning into for a while. Dowd's instincts about human character are foolish to bet against. She has essentially read every recent president correctly from the get-go as types. And she has always seen Obama as a bit of a cold fish, aloof, too unwilling to punch back, too arrogant to explain himself too much. MoDo worried about that in the campaign as the Clintons brought more raw human emotion to the trail and Obama often seemed to coast too cockily only to right himself, usually with some spell-binding speech or shrewd piece of campaign management. I generally trusted Obama's instincts. In the campaign, MoDo was nearly right (Obama did let the Clintons get back off the mat a few too many times) but in the end, wrong (look who got elected). But in government? The coolness has yet to be proven effective - as Kissinger has noted.
You see this in the almost clinical way Obama has assessed the politics of taking on the Bush administration's interrogation, detention and rendition policies. The way in which both Greg Craig and Phil Carter have been dispatched for insisting that Obama live up to his campaign promises (no, I don't believe the personal reasons line) is chilling in its raw political calculation. Ditto Obama's disciplined refusal to fulfill his campaign pledges on civil rights any time soon. And his rhetorical restraint during the Green Revolution. The determination to figure out the very best and most detailed way forward in Afghanistan, even during a war in which allies are waiting and enemies are watching, and to take his time ... well this is also a sign that we are dealing with one very, very cool character here.
Since I've always had a soft spot for cold fish in realpolitik - which high Tory (pun fully intended) doesn't get a frisson from Bismarck or Kissinger? - this impresses me. Since I'm also a red-blooded Irishman, eager for a fight and a little romantic about my ideals, this also angers me at times.
As readers remember, I wasn't exactly staying aloof during the Green Revolution or being cold-blooded defending gay equality. But that's why I'm a writer and not a statesman. We all have our roles to play. And in politics, I prefer cool to hot, other things being equal. In today's populist, emotional climate, coolness is a virtue in getting things right. Especially when it has been rarely more important to get things right - from Afghanistan to climate change to health insurance reform.
The paradox is: in today's populist, emotional climate, coolness can be eclipsed in the political drama, and thereby rendered moot. In many ways, Palin is the extreme counter-example. She plays a short game of around ten minutes in duration. She deploys no substantive policy content and no interest whatever in actual government. But she channels pure emotion, identity and rage very effectively. As such, she is a political nightmare, someone whom most Americans would never entrust with actual responsibility (yes, that means John McCain is the biggest cynic in Washington, but that's another story). But she is a cultural phenomenon who thereby wields political power.
Will this kind of heat - however irrational, however impulsive - overwhelm the cool emanating from the White House in this period of discontent? Not should it - but will it? That is the question. Is Obama a political version of Anderson Cooper up against a Bill O'Reilly repeat? Can he win a political ratings war in this atmosphere? Of course, Obama's campaign was very hot - but its heat came from its insurgency and its moment, not from the temperament of its figurehead. In government, the coolness makes policy sense, but does it make political sense?
In all this, Obama reminds me of George H W Bush in government, and of Ronald Reagan in campaigning. It's a dream combo in many ways. In theory. It's the practice thing that we're beginning to test. My sense remains the same as in the campaign. He's got this. Americans aren't that crazy. If he avoids major errors (and so far, it appears he has) and if we are not simply entering such a depressed economic era that any president is helpless, then my money is on him. An attempt to fake populist emotion would be as damaging as when Bush Senior tried. And Obama has a much stronger tie to his own party than Bush I ever had with his.
But this is history. Anything can happen. And probably will.
(Photo: Obama last night from the Getty pool.)
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