Every president plays a symbolic, almost mythological role that’s hard to talk about, much less quantify—it’s like trying to grab a ball of mercury. I’m not referring to using the bully pulpit to shape the national agenda but to the way that the president, as America’s most inescapably powerful figure, colors the emotional climate of the country. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did this affirmatively, expressing ideals that shaped the whole culture. Setting a buoyant tone, they didn’t just change movies, music, and television; they changed attitudes. Other presidents did the same, only unpleasantly. Richard Nixon created a mood of angry paranoia, Jimmy Carter one of dreary defeatism, and George W. Bush, especially in that seemingly endless second term, managed to do both at once.
While Barack Obama’s election left a joyous imprint on American culture—most of us were thrilled to discover that we could sometimes be what we want to think we are—his presidency almost immediately began smudging it. Not only did his first three years leave few traces on the culture but they proved unexpectedly joyless. This is partly because he’s been buffeted by economic hardship and an extremist opposition that has drowned out or misrepresented his many achievements. Back in January, a poll showed that more than half the country thought he had done “not very much” or “little or nothing.” Which is bonkers. You may have a hard time swallowing what Obama’s done, but like an order at the Olive Garden, there’s undeniably a lot of it.
Still, Obama deserves his own share of blame for the emotional letdown of his first three years. Voters didn’t elect him just for his policies; they voted for him because they expected that his presidency would be, if not transcendent, at least invigorating. Yet the truth is that he has often been boring—his first answer at his first presidential press conference ran 896 words—and eager to paint himself as the only grown-up in the room, a role that smacks of the school principal, not the visionary leader. Rather than relish his time in the White House, he’s sometimes behaved like its prisoner.
At once formal and guarded, which needn’t be the same thing, he hasn’t yet forged an intimate bond with the American people (aside, that is, from those many millions who feel the distinctive intimacy of hatred). That helps explain why his favorability numbers keep roller-coastering. If Americans don’t vote for him again, it won’t simply be because of gas prices, unemployment, or conservative efforts to take him down. It will be because of something more personal. Confused by the difference between the incandescent candidate and the professorial president, they’re still not sure what to make of him.
One person he’s clearly not is Bill Clinton, the first president of the 24/7 media juggernaut that keeps redefining our sense of what’s public and what’s private. Clinton’s policies might break your heart (he could feel your pain while signing legislation that increased it), but as that recent PBS documentary reminded us, he was always interesting, whether parsing the is-ness of “is,” playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on Arsenio, or talking about his underpants on MTV—not to mention his taste for fleshy ribs and women. The Clinton presidency was an early reality show, and if most people still liked him when it ended (he would’ve won a third term), this wasn’t only because the economy went boom. It was that everyone, even those who hated him, felt they knew him. Glimpsing themselves in his strengths and luxuriantly carnal weaknesses, Americans have never had a more intimate relationship with their president.
Clinton’s life was such a circus that commentator Kurt Andersen famously dubbed him “entertainer-in-chief.” His presidency demonstrated that the country had entered a new relationship between those in the Oval Office and those who put them there. Where the mass media once brought the public closer to their presidents than ever before—the radio “fireside chats” made Franklin Roosevelt seem like a jaunty uncle dropping into your home—the tabloiding of American media makes the White House feel besieged by barbarians who will rip it and the country to pieces for better ratings or more hits. Small wonder that both of Clinton’s successors have treated his example as a cautionary tale, becoming obsessed with controlling (as they say) the narrative.
Obama has been suspicious, if not hostile, toward a media that, eager to love him during his rise, now find him annoyingly sniffy. In a way, this is surprising, for if anyone would seem perfect for our media age, it’s him. Like Kennedy, he has a cool, even regal, style that plays well on the cool medium of TV and a charisma that producers and editors hope to milk. But unlike Kennedy, Obama governs in a media culture that’s too fast, too intrusive, too competitive, and too many--tentacled to be anything but treacherous. We are long past the day when newsmen swooned because Jackie Kennedy invited Pablo Casals to the White House, let alone when JFK could hang out with big-time reporters who were envious of (and remained silent about) the cavalier ease with which he got all those blow jobs. Indeed, we may never again see a day when the White House treats the media as anything but its enemy. In this respect, our presidents are all Nixon now.
Such mistrust has limited Obama’s ability to create an emotional bond with the public, many of whom find him a bit, well, alien. Americans like their presidents to share themselves, at least a little, so we can sense what makes them tick. But on top of a suspicion of the media, Obama is affected by other factors. One, obviously, is race: As the first black president, he has had to be careful not to come off flip (as with his early maladroit joke about Nancy Reagan’s séances); this made it almost inevitable that he would overplay his intrinsic seriousness, especially as it was precisely this that had allowed him to thrive in a white world. The other is a cherished sense of self-possession. It’s not that Obama doesn’t want us ever to see him sweat. It’s that, paradoxical in a man who sought and won the world’s biggest job, he sometimes doesn’t want us to see him at all.
In this, he resembles a less sunny—and less popular—version of Ronald Reagan, whose own persona was so elusive that he reduced his prize-winning biographer Edmund Morris to writing a fictionalized memoir and family members to puzzling over who the heck that guy was. Obama has learned to manage, or suppress, the psychic fallout of being the brilliant, mixed-race son of two seekers, one reliable, the other vaingloriously selfish, who endowed him with a childhood of rare, unsettling fluidity. Even now, one marvels at the discipline it took for this born outsider to become the self-possessed law student in blue shirt and chinos who, thanks to YouTube, we can watch addressing a 1991 Harvard rally—even then he was a cool customer—or the young attorney who wrote Dreams from My Father, a self-exposing book that transforms his unruly background into a finely wrought creation myth that closes off as much as it opens up.
Where Clinton could shake voters’ hands until the last dog died, and then give a long eulogy over Fido’s grave, Obama doesn’t seek or need the crowd’s love—though he does need its energy to bring out his best. (His worst speeches have come sitting in the Oval Office where his only audience is the camera.) Bush could repeat the same WMD falsehoods as tirelessly as a parrot. Obama, though, grows impatient with having to say the same things over and over; his America is a graduate seminar, not some remedial class for slow learners. Not one to mingle with his old colleagues on the Hill, he’s adopted a presidential style built around carefully staged public performances.
Better at set pieces than spontaneity—nearly all his rhetorical mistakes are off-the-cuff throwaways—he thrives on the ceremonial splendor of big moments. Just as Reagan shone after disasters like the Challenger explosion, so Obama was at his best in his Tucson speech about the shootings that targeted Representative Gabrielle Giffords. You can see why he prefers making speeches to giving press conferences, for the former lets him be in charge of both his message and his self-presentation; he loves dusting off his gravitas. Then, too, he’s really, really good at it. Here’s where one can feel the difference between Obama the president and Obama the candidate. Where his stirring oratory was key to his 2008 victory, once in office, his reliance on this strength has often proved counter-productive. Having voted him in, Americans wanted an easier, more conversational relationship that would let them relate to their leader; unfortunately, even the finest public speeches can’t help but feel like performances. They inspire more admiration than personal rapport.
As competitive as he is serene, Obama clearly wants to win at everything he does, be it a pickup basketball game, re-election, or the verdict of History. But physique aside, he often reminds me of Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA center who was his era’s most dominating player yet didn’t believe it necessary to knock himself out every single game—he’d turn it on when he got to the playoffs. I followed Obama as he was running for Senate and was struck by how skillfully he paced himself on the trail, low-keying it at small stops, rousing himself to table-pounding eloquence at big-city dinners. Sitting alone, he sank into himself as if he were his own hot tub, as comfortable in his skin as the Buddha, yet when someone approached, he came to life, his killer smile exploding like a flashbulb.
Obama is one who can turn it on. Kicking into high gear as the campaign is upon us, he’s suddenly all over the news doing things that may be cold-blooded politics but suggest warm-blooded humanity—singing “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo, talking hoops on Bill Simmons’s ESPN podcast (he wowed sports-talk hosts with his detailed knowledge of Blake Griffin’s jump shot), phoning Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh’s noxious name-calling, and giving a ripsnorter of a speech to the United Auto Workers that had the crowd chanting “Four more years! Four more years!” even though the event was officially nonpolitical. He’s turning into the happy, engaged President Obama we’ve been missing, the one many of us have wanted him to be all along.
Everybody has their own theory for predicting who will win a presidential race—the candidate who has the most money, the candidate who runs the best campaign, the candidate who can attract soccer moms or Nascar dads. Allow me to propose what I modestly call The Powers Principle™. It holds that, in a presidential election, the winner will be the candidate who seems like the most fun. This is something larger than the dinky (and discredited) idea elaborated during Bush v. Gore—that Dubya is the candidate you’d “rather have a beer with.” That is (forgive me) small beer. The “most fun” candidate is the one who, in style, attitude, and vision, will do the most to make America feel like the enjoyable and optimistic place that the world still envies.
Being more fun is why JFK beat Nixon in that 1960 nail-biter and why the risky but dashing Reagan trounced the familiar but be-sweatered Jimmy Carter. It’s why Papa Bush could beat gray-souled Michael Dukakis yet lose to the Boy from Hope, who would go on to swamp Bob Dole, one of the wittiest politicians of the last half-century but cursed by his resemblance to the crabby duffer who runs your neighborhood hardware store. It’s why Albert Gore’s nyah-nyah prissiness made him vulnerable to Dubya’s lack of pretension, which even in the middle of the botched Iraq War still seemed like a better time than John Kerry’s boundless stentorian maundering (“And so I say to you …”). The one counterexample might appear to be Nixon’s two victories, yet in ’68, the old “Happy Warrior,” Hubert Humphrey, looked hemorrhoidal the whole time, while the genuinely miserable Tricky Dick pretended to be happy, and four years later, George McGovern appeared to be offering not fun but chaos.
This historical trend is good news for Obama, who already lucked out once in getting to run against superannuated John McCain. This fall, the Republicans are going to put forward a candidate who is no fun at all, be it Mitt Romney, who never seems more animatronic than when trying to prove he’s a regular, good-time guy, or Father Santorum, whose campaign would doubtless pass out rulers so we can whack our own knuckles whenever we have impure thoughts. Obama should outshine either of these sour America-in-declinesters unless he relapses and starts believing that voters want someone dead serious who will approach every issue with detached sobriety. Sure, we’re voting for the man who will hold the world’s fate in his hands, but never forget, we’re also inviting someone into our inboxes for the next four years. We want him to be good company.