I'm part of an American demographic that values cool, the mystical self-confidence that sends the message "I have it handled." Since he burst upon the national political scene in 2004, Barack Obama has seemed the epitome of cool. But after the BP gulf oil disaster, pundits accused Obama of being "too cool."
In a recent article, MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman asked, "Is Obama's 'cool' too cold for the ravaged gulf?" and concluded, "Technocratic, lawyerly, detail-oriented, bureaucratic: each of these qualities has its value. But they add up to a mess when they sum up a president." Ouch!
Fineman expressed the view, shared by many pundits, that Obama's cool has degenerated into detachment. They argue that Americans have lost confidence in their young President, no longer believe Barack "has it handled."
A few days after Fineman wrote his article,Obama appeared in Louisiana lashed out at BP and national headlines proclaimed, "Obama Calm No More!"
Has Barack abandoned cool? Replaced it with anger?
The nation first became aware of Barack Obama when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic national Convention. It wasn't only the fact he gave a powerful speech, but also his calm demeanor that impressed many observers.
Three years later, Obama decided to run for President and bet his candidacy on winning the Iowa caucuses. Early on he wasn't doing well, but on November 11, 2007, he gave an electrifying speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, gained momentum, won in Iowa, and ultimately bested Hillary Clinton. Obama's primary campaign was characterized by wise tactics and, on occasion, game-changing passionate speeches. No matter what the Clintons threw at him, Barack stayed cool.
In the presidential contest, Obama gained the upper hand when he won the second presidential debate. Many pundits observed that while Obama looked Presidential, John McCain appeared troll-like and grumpy. Barack was cool; McCain was not.
In November of 2008, voters chose Obama over McCain. Post-election analysis indicated that Independents voted for Barack because they felt he was more temperamentally suited to be President.
We're now 500 days into Obama's presidency. Nothing that's happened, so far, indicates that the nation made the wrong choice: Obama is better equipped than McCain to be President. It's hard to imagine that McCain would have done a better job with the economy, healthcare, financial reform, jobs, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and the other huge issues the 44th president has had to deal with. Barack has succeeded because he has the temperament to handle a very tough job.
But is Obama too cool?
As a student of cool, I understand that many of my personal heroes of cool - Miles Davis, Clint Eastwood, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso - had a dark side. They maintained their manly composure by being emotionally detached. As a consequence, they had problems with personal relationships and were said to be narcissistic. There were negative side affects from their being too cool.
And cool doesn't always work. Periodically, the United States has a national crisis and the role of the President changes. The man in the Oval Office doesn't lose any responsibility but he takes on the additional burden of being the nation's daddy. We ask him to provide emotional comfort: let us vent our emotions, pat us on the back, and tell us it's going to be all right. That's the function George Bush fulfilled, after 9/11, when he spoke to rescue workers in the ruins of the twin towers and addressed the nation on September 21st. It's easy to criticize Bush's record before and after that point, but for a brief period he did what was necessary. Dubya was never cool but, at the time, most people were comforted by his behavior. He provided emotional support, served as America's security blanket.
Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill - as England's Prime Minister at the beginning of World War II - demonstrated that a leader could be cool and also serve as his nation's security blanket. In the face of a Nazi juggernaut that had swept across Europe, Churchill rallied England to stand up to Hitler's tyranny. While bombs fell on London, Churchill kept up the spirits of his countrymen with a series of inspirational radio addresses. "Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" When Londoners took refuge in bomb shelters, Prime Minister Churchill went with them, stolidly chewing on his cigar. He was cool, but not detached.
Barack Obama needs to follow Churchill's example. Obama doesn't need to lose his cool, because he has the temperament required for a tempestuous time. But Barack needs to develop a better sense of when to set cool aside and get down with average Americans. He has to be with us, as well as for us.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.