Although the Presidency is about issues, challenges, and complex negotiations, there’s another side. With every new President we get the pleasure of watching a human being adapt to the office. Very quickly an image emerges. Barack Obama entered the White House at a time of crisis, amid frayed nerves and anxiety. The image we wanted to see was pictured in advance by constant references to Lincoln and FDR, the two Presidents who overcame the deepest crises in our history.
Amid the dog show and the Easter egg roll, the whirlwind foreign visits and being the man who accompanied Michelle Obama to Europe (a wink-and-a-nod reference to JFK, another dapper celebrity politician), what do we feel about this new President as a human being?
Personally, Obama seems to me to be a man of virtue. This is something of an irony, because George W. Bush and the right wing co-opted virtue back in 2001. They trumpeted their desire to bring decency back to the White House after the shocking (how very shocked they were) immorality of Bill Clinton. As the party of “values,” the Republicans took out a patent on virtue, so it must be galling for them to witness in Obama someone who actually is decent, truthful, candid, and strong. The Bush smirk wasn’t the only giveaway that our last President wasn’t going to live up to his billing. He always seemed like an expensive suit wrapped around a show of qualities he didn’t possess. The private Bush was stubborn, capricious, sulky, and immature. He was born to privilege and the recklessness of privilege. He cried at the sight of wounded vets but couldn’t grasp the wrong of the unjust war he foisted upon them.
The country could afford to tolerate Bush’s shallowness when we felt rich and safe. but after the debacle of the Iraq war, the rising tide of hatred from the Islamic world, the abandonment of our traditional alliances, and finally the catastrophe of the financial collapse, we couldn’t afford someone who pretended to qualities he didn’t have.
Great leaders have an uncanny way of matching the need of the time. Obama isn’t a carbon copy of Lincoln and FDR. So far, he hasn’t displayed the former’s immense moral courage or the latter’s larger-than-life optimism. The particular virtues that are being called upon from this President are calmness, astuteness, and organization. Taken altogether, they aren’t a glamorous package. Obama ran for the office on inspiration, but he may wind up being remembered as the fix-it President. He’s the plumber-in-chief assigned to repair a hundred leaks that cannot be ignored any longer.
Still, it’s comforting to know that Obama can rise to inspiration if that’s what is needed. It’s also comforting to see that he is normal. His wife reminds him not to scare the kids when he growls too loud reading “Where the Wild Things Are.” He bowls a terrible game and becomes endearing for it. He makes clunky attempts to unbend from his natural dignity, and that endears him, too. Virtue was dragged into the White House eight years ago as a semi-sleazy political gambit. How amazing that when we least expected it, the real thing arrived.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle