Many Democrats are nostalgic for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — for the passion, the clarity, the bliss-to-be-alive fervor. They argue that these things are missing in a cautious and emotionless White House. But, of course, the Obama campaign, like all presidential campaigns, was built on a series of fictions. . . .I would like to think that this is true, and I would like to think that it is a good thing. One of the reasons I supported Obama from the beginning of the primaries was a sense that he was a thoughtful man who would govern thoughtfully. To read that he is doing so is pleasing. But you never know about these leaked accounts of how wonderful life is on the inside. If things start to go badly for Obama, the leaks could start to portray endless dithering and petty backbiting and what not. On the whole, though, based on what I know of Obama and some of his advisers, I suspect that this is reasonably accurate.
All presidents have to adjust to these realities when they move to the White House. The only surprise with President Obama is how enthusiastically he has made the transition. He’s political, like any president, but he seems to vastly prefer the grays of governing to the simplicities of the campaign.
The election revolved around passionate rallies. The Obama White House revolves around a culture of debate. He leads long, analytic discussions, which bring competing arguments to the fore. He sometimes seems to preside over the arguments like a judge settling a lawsuit.
His policies are often a balance as he tries to accommodate different points of view. He doesn’t generally issue edicts. In matters foreign and domestic, he seems to spend a lot of time coaxing people along. His governing style, in short, is biased toward complexity.
The real question is whether this works. Governing in a democracy is only half about getting the policies right, because providing services is only half of what governments do. A big part of the function of government, and the President in particular, is to make people feel better. Successful Presidents make people feel like somebody cares about their problems and is trying to help, like their voices are heard, like they are part of something bigger than themselves, like being an American is a good thing. As a relentlessly analytical, policy-obsessed intellectual, I rarely think in those terms myself. But I think most of my compatriots do. So I wonder if the kind of politicians I admire myself are really the best for the country. The most famous Presidents of the 20th century -- Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan -- brought something else to the job quite separate from competent management. Their appeal was emotional and fundamentally irrational.
I suspect that Obama will never inspire that sort of emotional devotion, except from middle class blacks. Whether he can achieve important things for the country without that emotional connection to the people -- health reform, greenhouse gas limits, a strong economic rebound -- remains to be seen, and it will be a real test of whether dispassionate, intellectual government can work in America.