Undaunted by Barack Obama’s landslide victory last November, Peggy Noonan has returned to her abiding complaint: Barack Obama is not likeable, he’s too formal, and too self-important to fill the boots of men like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and now even George Bush. Last week, in her column "The Presidential Wheels Turns", Noonan compared Obama unfavorably against all four former presidents still alive and able to attend the opening of George Bush’s Library. Here’s how she compares the two star performers:
“He (George Bush) thought he was luckily born, quick but not deep, and he famously trusted his gut but also his heart. He always seemed moved and grateful to be in the White House. Someone who met with Mr. Obama during his first year in office, an old hand who'd worked with many presidents, came away worried and confounded. Mr. Obama, he said, was the only one who didn't seem awed by his surroundings, or by the presidency itself.”
Barack Obama, too, spoke sincerely of Bush’s likeability at the Library proceedings, "To know the man is to like the man, because he's comfortable in his own skin.”
Setting aside the saccharine screed Noonan employs in her partisan columns, is she making a serious point? Are presidents usually more relaxed than Barack Obama? Has his presidency been diminished by his spotty ability to help other self-important people feel comfortable?
(First, we should clear something up. Obama was describing past-president George Bush—a man seemingly enjoying his retirement—when he used that tired cliché about being comfortable in his own skin. Of course, we can’t really know George Bush’s state of mind when he was actually making presidential decisions. Today, memoirs from old White Houses uniformly contain only lawyered regrets and assurances that every one slept peacefully when there was time.)
The appearance of self-assurance is important in public, especially in dangerous times. When a president is speaking to Congress or just one of those Washington gossips that Noonan calls “old hands,” he daren’t show nervousness. Can you imagine a young president in the spring of 2009, asking strangers whether he ought to nationalize the banks or reintroduce the Gold Standard? And whether anyone in the room understood what Larry Summers was talking about?
We say leaders should be relaxed and we note approvingly that leadership is a lonely business. Politicking may be as relaxing as golf. But decision-making isn’t. Getting to the right decision isn’t relaxing work. And it’s lonely—for one thing, because leaders can’t show their misgivings in public.
After just one panic attack in the House of Commons in the mid-20s, Winston Churchill never spoke in public again without speaking notes. He would have loved the teleprompter. Also, he acknowledged that he had misgivings every time he committed British forces to action. President Dwight Eisenhower smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day during his tenure as commander of Allied Forces.
These nervous gentlemen were not nervous in public. However, those who miss the style of the Reagan and Bush presidencies should at least accept that governance isn’t the same as horseback-riding. Helping the helpers relax isn’t the job of productive executives or presidents.
Finally, would Obama have been more successful in his first term and now in his second term if he were less formal—less presidential—in his dealing with his opponents in Congress and with disaffected journalists?
America is definitely ready for a female president. However, was America ready in 2008 to elect, ready in 2012 to re-elect, and ready in any time in the foreseeable future to elect a black politician noted for being “comfortable with his own skin”? A man, for instance, as inarticulate and as teary as George Bush, as promiscuous as Bill Clinton, or as vulgar and as manipulative as Lyndon B. Johnson?