The May first attack on Osama bin Laden produced an iconic image: President Barack Obama in the White House situation room, surrounded by his national security advisers, monitoring the progress of the Navy Seals' mission in far off Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama stands out because of the steely intensity in his eyes. He's totally focused. Preternaturally cool.
In American culture, being cool is regarded as a virtue, but it can be a mixed blessing. The late jazz great, Miles Davis, was considered the epitome of cool - one of his most influential albums is titled, "The Birth of the Cool" - yet he was mercurial and difficult; alternately brilliant, moody, influential, and misanthropic.
From the time Barack Obama burst upon the national scene with his brilliant keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he has been characterized as cool: intelligent, calm, and focused. His unflappable demeanor distinguished his Presidential campaign, particularly in the second TV debate with John McCain, where the younger Obama came across as a seasoned White House executive while McCain meandered like a befuddled geriatric.
But there's a fine line between high cool, ingenious independence, and low cool, disdainful aloofness. In 2008, Obama appeared to be the master of high cool. His campaign was fresh, as was the candidate, who struck the right balance between pragmatism and hope. Then, after his inauguration, Obama skidded into low cool. As the financial clouds darkened, he often appeared to be hiding in the White House, walled off by his advisers, and unable to move legislation through Congress. As a consequence of Bush-era ineptitude, the United States was mired in The Great Recession and Obama seemed detached from the suffering of the jobless, incapable of feeling their pain. Over time his approval ratings fell. When Americans wanted their new President to roll up his sleeves and take action, Obama appeared detached.
Nonetheless, Obama periodically showed flashes of high cool. Early in 2010, he intervened to save his Health Care Initiative. In January of 2011, he gave an electrifying speech in Tucson after the shooting of Representative Giffords.
Then came the successful May 1 st attack on bin Laden and the return of Obama's high cool. When Barack announced bin Laden's death, Americans understood the President had skillfully managed the elaborate mission to the Abbottabad complex. For the moment, Obama was the man.
Once it was launched, the outcome of the attack was far from certain. In 1980, another Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, authorized a similar special-forces effort to rescue 66 American hostages held in Iran. That raid failed and, as a consequence, Carter's Presidency went down in flames. As a student of history, President Obama understood the Navy Seals' mission to Abbottabad was his Jimmy Carter moment. Barack was already in trouble because of the economy and he knew if the raid failed - if the Seals failed to get bin Laden or suffered heavy casualties - then his popularity would plummet; cool would become fool.
That's why the image of the President in the situation room is so significant: at the most important moment in his political career, Barack Obama reclaimed his high cool. And, not surprisingly, his popularity has surged.
However, the most important rule of cool is that you use it or lose it. In the periods when Miles Davis was non-cool he, in effect, became a hermit. Then Miles would reinvent himself and his music, reappear and amp up the cool. A corollary is that it's essential to go on offense. Miles never stopped growing, absorbing new influences ranging from Charlie Parker to Stevie Wonder. You don't retain cool by resting on your laurels.
Obama doesn't have time to bask in the success of his attack on bin Laden. Barack must turn all of his attention to the US economy, which has two fundamental problems. First, we're not generating enough jobs and, therefore, the recovery is anemic. And second, Republicans don't have a clue about economics and, therefore, advocate policies that are nonsensical and destructive. Building upon his triumph in Abbottabad, the President has to lead a new mission to secure the American economy: create jobs and prevent Republicans from ripping to shreds the social safety net
There's a discomforting parallel between the Islamic Jihadists who want, among other things, to destroy America's economy and Republicans, who seem determined to catapult the US into a depression by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agrees to their egregious spending cuts. Indeed, on May 10 th White House Spokesman Jay Carney compared the reckless Republican strategy to hostage taking: "Carney said both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for deficit reduction. But it would be tantamount to holding the U.S. economy 'hostage' by tying the debate over the debt limit to budget cuts."
Barack Obama needs to bring the same steely intensity he displayed during the Abbottabad mission to his negotiations with Republicans and refuse to accede to their draconian demands. This dangerous conflict requires high cool.
But it won't be sufficient to simply raise the debt limit; that only postpones resolution of our economic problems. Obama has to use his cool to rally America behind a new economic recovery mission that rescues the missing jobs.