Monday, March 19, 2012

Are Presidents Stranger than Other People?

I've been pondering this assessment of Obama, from Post reporter Scott Wilson:
Beyond the economy, the wars and the polls, President Obama has a problem: people.

This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.

Obama’s circle of close advisers is as small as the cluster of personal friends that predates his presidency. There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.

Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work. “He likes politics,” said a Washington veteran who supports Obama, “but like a campaign manager likes politics, not a candidate.” The former draws energy from science and strategy, the latter from contact with people.
Obama does seem like a perpetual outsider, a guy who grew up largely in places where he did not fit in or even speak the language, cut off from his father, without many friends, and who developed a coldly analytical approach to life. He became president through a combination of cold, rational planning and hot rhetoric that is strange even among top politicians. If you assume, though, that he calculates his emotional speeches as carefully as his fundraising, it all falls into place.

I have the impression that other American presidents have been strange characters. I thought Reagan was oblivious to 80% of what happens in the world, even right next to him. Bill Clinton, I thought, felt alive only in front of a cheering crowd, or in bed with an adoring woman. W was and remains a complete mystery to me. Of recent president only the first Bush seemed halfway normal to me, normal, at least, for an aristocratic family that took leadership as their due.

Perhaps our presidents are weird because becoming president of the U.S. is such a crazy act that only a half-mad man would attempt it -- look at what Mitt Romney is putting himself through in pursuit of the prize. But then again, maybe everybody is that weird, and we just know about the presidents because by running for office they enter a fishbowl that exposes all their strangeness to our gaze. I feel for Mitt Romney, who has to spend his days chatting up strangers, something he obviously does not enjoy, veering between the robotic recitation of catch phrases and off the cuff comments that strike observers as downright weird. But could you wander around talking to strangers all day and "seem natural" without saying anything weird? I couldn't. We know only a few people really well, and maybe what we see when we look at presidents or kooky celebrities is something much closer to the human norm than we would like to admit.

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