Michael Gerson
"The trouble with you is," she continued steadily, "you think people should stay in their own sealed packages. You don't believe in opening up. You don't believe in trading back and forth."

"I certainly don't," Macon said, buttoning his shirt front. Anne Tyler, "The Accidental Tourist"

WASHINGTON -- If politics were literature, Bill Clinton would be Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby," casually smashing lives around him while remaining untouched by the chaos he creates. Barack Obama is more like Macon Leary in "The Accidental Tourist," the author of tour guides who hates travel. "He was happiest with a regular scheme of things" -- a cautious driver and committed flosser, systematic and steady, suspicious of unpredictable yearnings, displaying an "appalling calm" in times of crisis. "If you let yourself get angry you'll be ... consumed," Macon says. "You'll burn up. It's not productive." Only order and method are productive. He is attracted to the "virtuous delights of organizing a disorganized country."

Macon uses structure and rationality to avoid facing personal loss. Obama's emotional distance seems rooted in self-sufficiency -- a stout fortress of self-confidence. But the effect is much the same. Obama leads a country without reflecting its passions -- at least any he is willing to share. Events leave him apparently untouched. He doesn't need the crowd. Americans have always loved Obama more than he seems to care for us.

Reaction to this trait is one of the main dividing lines in American politics. Some view it as cold, cerebral and off-putting. Obama supporters still find his reserve refreshing, a welcome contrast to emotive and theatrical politicians. For me -- constitutionally averse to hugging, back-slapping and other forms of politically motivated manhandling -- Obama's manner has a certain appeal. It offers some of the pre-Oprah presidential dignity of Rutherford B. Hayes or James Garfield.

Obama's challenge is not a lack of theatrics. It is a lack of range. The most effective modern presidents -- a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan -- were able to adopt a number of tones and roles. They could express grand national ambition, withering partisan contempt, humorous self-deprecation, tear-jerking sentimentality, patriotic passion -- sometimes all in the same speech. They played an orchestra of arguments and emotions -- blaring trumpets, soft violins, rude tubas.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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