Neal Gabler

Mr. President, where is the passion?

(Stephen Kroninger Illustration)
By Neal Gabler
December 20, 2009

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WELL, THAT was fast. Though past presidential candidates were elected with a larger percentage of votes, it is fair to say that no modern president reached office with a greater outpouring of sentiment, enthusiasm, and passion than Barack Obama. Supporters felt this was a landmark election, not only because Obama was African-American but also because he promised a different kind of presidency. They actually believed he would make good on his campaign slogan. Finally, change that would matter.

It didn’t take long for the disillusion to set in, especially among those on the left who had been Obama’s most ardent admirers. Where they had expected a full-throttle presidency, undoing what George W. Bush had done, what they got instead is a timorous one. In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis pronounced that the election was not about ideology but about competence. Now we have the presidency that Dukakis promised. It is cautious, deliberative, reasonable, experienced, not terribly ideological and entirely competent - very different from George W. Bush’s government of ideologues, cronies, and hacks.

But there is one big thing that the administration lacks: passion. It is hard to remember a presidency that was as passionless as this one is - a presidency that puts down no markers, draws no lines in the sand, makes no stand. That, even more than the compromises themselves, may be what really riles Obama’s old supporters. It is that he doesn’t seem tortured by the compromise. Simply put, Obama seems to be missing the passion gene.

Other presidents compromised without incurring wrath. Think of Kennedy. But Obama acts as if he were a Solomon who always chooses to cut the baby in half. He was adamant about a public option in any health care bill, but if there wasn’t one, no big deal. He was devoted to closing the prison at Guantanamo, but if there is a ruckus about it, no big deal in keeping it open a while longer. He was firm that America had to take a more realistic approach to the efficacy of its military power, but if General McChrystal wants more troops in Afghanistan, no big deal. It is no wonder that Obama’s old supporters don’t see this as change you can believe in. It is change you can believe will always be compromised.

It is not that President Obama, faced with his own political realities, failed to translate the passion of his election into a tidal wave that could carry his policies forward. It is that he never seemed to try because he never wanted to stir that passion. We knew he wasn’t a firebrand. He wasn’t going to be a Ted Kennedy, providing a voice for the voiceless or power for the powerless. He seemed uncomfortable in that role. But what few seemed to foresee is just how diffident he would be, how unmoved he seems to be, at least publicly, by the plight of the jobless, those who are struggling to afford health care, or the soldiers who must fight our battles. You wonder what, if anything, can really get his dander up, which is not a good thing to wonder.

Part of this may just be politics. Obama may feel that he is so circumscribed by the Republican obstructionists that fighting more forcefully may not only be useless but counterproductive. Part of this may also be cultural. The last thing Obama wants to be perceived as is an angry black man, which may be why he feels he has to modulate everything he does, lest he give his enemies yet another point of attack. And part of it may be personal history. As the child of two idealistic but flighty parents whose heads were in the clouds, Obama seems to have made every attempt to be grounded. He is nothing if not calm, practical, and realistic - “careful not to expect too much,’’ as he put it in Dreams from My Father.’’

But the larger part of it seems to be a matter of temperament. Unlike the Kennedys, Obama never seems to have identified with the alienated and dispossessed. He worked with them, as a community organizer, but he admits he was never one of them, and it was never his life’s mission to find ways for the government to serve them better. In many ways, Obama’s story is one of personal elevation rather than missionary zeal. His object was to be the smartest and coolest man in the room. To that end, he opted not to join the rabble rousers but rather to join the elites. No matter how much you may admire Obama, he seems far more comfortable with his Ivy League-educated associates than with poor folks. He likes the idea of being passionless.

Obama wouldn’t be the first person to equate intelligence with equanimity, and there is certainly something to be said for cool reason after eight years of ideological zealotry. But he may be making a major political miscalculation if he thinks cool reason can carry the day. The great movements that changed America - among them abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights and, yes, health care - were the products of passion and indefatigability. They required individuals who could fire the public imagination.

Similarly, a president who intends to do great things, as Obama clearly does, must be able to rally the nation, and the most obvious way to do that is by demonstrating his own deep concern. Obama once approvingly called the Clinton administration “grand ambition but without sharp edges.’’ Sometimes, though, you need sharp edges. To mix metaphors, the bully pulpit isn’t supposed to lull parishioners to sleep. It is to rouse them to action.

If anyone understood this, it was Franklin Roosevelt. He was elected more on hope than on passion, but he quickly energized the nation, not by being temperate or lusting for compromise but by calling for boldness. There was something fearless about FDR. He didn’t mince policies or words. When the economic interests opposed him, he said, “I welcome their hatred.’’ Above all, he gave the sense that he cared deeply, that there were some initiatives too important to treat as if they were business as usual, that he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. In short, he gave the sense that he had the passion of his convictions, which helped through political osmosis embolden the country as well.

Sadly, the American people often don’t care what a president is passionate about, so long as he is passionate. If George W. Bush had nothing else - and he didn’t have much - he at least had that going for him. He might have been wrong, but he gave the sense that he wasn’t about to be deterred. He knew that splitting the difference is not the road to presidential accomplishment. You must believe.

Obama has a lot going for him. He is brilliant, reasonable, curious, articulate. But he hasn’t figured out that being the smartest guy in the room doesn’t mean very much politically, certainly not as much as being the most passionate guy in the room. If he can’t find something that he is willing to go to the mat for, no matter the consequences, he may wind up being a president of increments at best and a one-term president at worst. After all, if he doesn’t care enough to put himself on the line for healthcare reform or climate change legislation or financial regulation or troop withdrawals, why should we?

Neal Gabler is author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination.’’

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