The idea that Barack Obama is not macho enough for the presidency – too professorial, too aloof, too cool – seems to be spreading. It’s the feeling that he doesn’t threaten or ‘kick ass’. It’s an idea that’s so familiar now that columnists like Dominic Lawson now mention it only in passing, as if everybody knew (and agreed).
And not all the criticisms are coming from the Anglo-American right wing and the Tea Party. The liberal progressive element in the US is showing its disappointment, too, with increasing emphasis on the personality question. Naturally both cohorts claim that they are only reflecting back what ordinary people are saying about Mr Obama and his presidency: that he is not sufficiently assertive or aggressive for the job. Many regret voting for him.
Character and personality
To Americans, clearly, the personality of the officeholder is what really matters. “Twenty-seven percent of American voters claim they choose presidential candidates primarily on the basis of the nominee’s character and moral values, according to a poll conducted after the 2000 elections” (quoted by Benjamin David Steele in Politics, personality and character, in his blog of 29 March 2010; I recommend this long, detailed article, one of a flood of academic pieces on this subject which refer to James David Barber’s The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House (4th Edition 2008) in which he analyses four types of presidential personality, such as active-positive or passive-negative).
Given that, by virtue of his or her office, the US President is at the same time also the most influential actor on the world stage, the qualities and characteristics of the present occupant of the position matter to billions of non-Americans as well. This obviously raises the possibility that the two sets of people might differ about what sort of person they would want to see in the White House. Those who judge the president from outside the US might well wish for a different type and style of chief executive than US citizens do. And in the postwar world we live in, that matters. The notion that foreigners need have no particular attitude about the occupant of the White House began to crumble in 1919, when another professor was president. It fell to dust on 6 August 1945.
It’s probably too simplistic to conclude that Americans usually look for an alpha male (sorry, Hillary) and that foreigners, if asked, and fearing a global bully, would rather lay stress on intelligence, moral values and a certain amount of benevolence towards other countries. But I would argue that the divergence is more obvious when considering the concept of the presidency itself.
Americans seem to want a certain touch of make-things-right magic to fill in the role of their commander-in-chief. In the responsibility of occupying the most prominent leadership position on the planet, he or she must come across as a great inspired and inspiring leader, not only in the personal sense but in the institutional one as well. These are high expectations; not always fulfilled, as we have seen. There is also, surely, a streak of anti-intellectualism, which is one of the hidden parts of the American psyche afflicting President Obama now.
The Federalist Papers offer limited guidance. Hamilton suggests only that the Chief Magistrate show “vigor and expedition” (The Federalist, number 70), which in modern speech would be something like ‘energy and prompt action.’ The underlying reef of meaning, however,remains: although there are limits – constitutional ones like checks and balances – to what the presidency can achieve, Americans seem to yearn for a permanent exhibition of unlimited confidence, forcefulness and power in the office. Nothing less will do.
Who wants what?
The successful president will show this abundantly and in culturally satisfying ways. By definition they will not always resonate in other cultures. Foreigners too will judge the office as well as the person. It’s similar to the fact that, during the second Bush presidency, respondents to opinion polls even in the Middle East understood the difference between America (‘good’) and the then president (‘bad’). But they will make their judgement of the office according to their own needs. Hence the paradox that whilst ‘middle America’ welcomes isolationist rhetoric from all their political leaders (remember the criticisms of France during the 2004 campaign?) non-Americans yearn to see the presidency take an informed, sensitive interest in world problems and challenges and brings to bear on them enlightened interventions and some evidence of moral judgement.
On that score, this foreigner thinks, President Obama has not done badly so far. We foreign boomers especially feel this way, you see, ever since we heard these words from the presidential pulpit, all those years ago: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” I think Mr Obama would agree. Greetings, Mr President.