I’ve covered presidents and presidential candidates for a long time. I’ve interviewed Barack Obama in quiet, empty rooms; I’ve seen him on a football field, surrounded by 80,000 spectators; and I’ve observed him from near and far as commander in chief.
So I feel qualified to say this about the guy: Of all the folks I’ve covered, he is the most comfortable in his own skin and with his on-stage role as a leader. This was true at the beginning of his campaign, and remains a reality through the first months of his presidency.
This gift is a crucial one to grasp as Obama nears his 100th day in office. He not only represents a new administration and a shift in governing philosophy, but he also embodies the ideals of a fresh leadership strategy.
He is the ever-present president — as ubiquitous, image-rich, far-reaching, and networked as the Internet that helped launch him into power.
Obama seems to live — to have been born to live — calmly and confidently on a global stage with the hottest lights and biggest audience.
That stage now is fully digitized, cabled, YouTubed, Huffpo’d, and Twittered. He never leaves it, or seems to want to. At the same time, Obama doesn’t seem bothered that he’s on that stage to begin with.
He doesn’t seem needy, aloof or afraid. We used to call that “cool.”
Whatever the label, it’s an impressive and potent combination of confidence, articulateness, brains, and stage awareness.
True, Obama uses a teleprompter, but he also seems at home during press conferences and “avails” without that electronic crutch.
And his wife and daughters (and probably even the new dog) seem as utterly at home in the 24/7 spotlight as he does. White House handlers have brilliantly packaged and presented them, but the family has dad’s inherent knack for not seeming packaged at all.
And so, like him or not, agree with him or not, trust him or not — you can’t escape him. He’s always with us — just hanging with us here on planet Earth in his designated role as president.
This is beyond unique.
Other presidential personalities
No one I’ve written about quite captures Obama’s vibe. Ronald Reagan comes closest. He had been an actor, and was a truly genial sort, so he, too, was comfortable in public — with himself and others. But Reagan was wary of the press, and he liked his privacy. And first lady Nancy Reagan absolutely loathed most public displays.
Other presidents I’ve covered were, in one way or another, uncomfortable at times in their public roles — or needed refuge in ways that Obama doesn’t understand, let alone require.
George H.W. Bush, engaging and confident in private, was afraid to be dismissed as a foppish preppy in public and reacted by overplaying his hand in a caricature of “every man” behavior.
Bill Clinton loved the limelight, of course, but was conflicted about it and, sadly, needed his dark moments of private release.
George W. Bush was really, at heart, a private guy. He once told me that if he had gotten out of politics he would have been happy to spend his days fishing alone in a rowboat. I believed him. He saw himself as a virtual prisoner in the White House — an attitude that had explosive consequences for the country.
That’s not Obama. He conveys the sense of being a fish that doesn’t (of course) know that he is in a fishbowl. It’s merely the place where he lives and breathes.
Now this gift has some good uses, as Obama has shown. His placid demeanor helped soothe the country as he took its reins in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Still relatively young and admittedly inexperienced in world affairs, he nevertheless seemed to be right at home with his fellow G-20 summiteers during his travels in Europe last month.
Obama's confidence in public helps him advance his breathtakingly ambitious and expensive agenda — which includes everything from his massive stimulus plan, to his new budget, to his bailouts of banks.
After the flawed brilliance of Clinton and the foxhole moralizing of Bush, Obama’s easy equanimity has not only allowed him to remain popular in the polls, but to restore, in some ways, the very idea of presidential leadership – especially on domestic issues.
Risks for Obama
But there are risks associated with the Mr. Cool presidency.
For one, presidents aren’t supposed to handle everything — all the explaining, all the deciding, all the legislating. That is what we have Congress and the courts and the state and local governments for.
In our media-suffused democracy, visibility means responsibility, and while Obama cannot handle every task and issue, he seems determined to discuss and administer in his “reality TV” presidency.
Yes, the buck stops there — on his desk — but it can get piled so high he cannot see.
There will be mistakes and failures, and we have yet to see how the always-on Mr. Cool will react. He can get angry in private, they say, though I have never seen anything other than an occasional glint of icy dismay at a logistical matters handled badly.
If there is another Obama behind the curtain we will eventually see it — for the play is never ending and he is the only man on the stage.