Coruscating on Thin Ice

At a speech in Colorado someone asked if I was concerned about some of the appointees to the Obama administration. The questioner was referring obliquely to conservative dismay at Van Jones, special adviser for green jobs on the White House environmental council. Apart from a flirtation with radicalism (you have to hope it did not become a full, deep and continuing relationship), Jones, in February, thoughtfully attempted to capture the essence of the GOP in a speech in Berkeley, Calif. “Republicans are —,” he explained. We don’t print the word he used, but it refers to a body part involved in elimination. He was speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the Rahm Emanuel Center for the Study of Political Comportment. Ha, just kidding.

But Mr. Jones is not my concern. All early administrations draw to their middle and lower levels a certain number of activists from the edges—flakes. But because they are extreme, they become controversial, and because they are controversial, they become ineffective. In its way the system works.

President ObamaA greater concern about President Obama’s staffers and appointees is that so many of them are so young and relatively untried. And not only young and untried, but triumphant. They’re on top of the world. They came from nowhere and elected their guy against the odds. Against expectations, they beat a machine (the Clintons) and a behemoth (long-triumphant Republicanism). Now nothing can stop them, Let’s do big things, let’s be consequential. Consequentialism has been the blight of America’s political life for a decade. Because of it, America’s nerves have been rubbed raw.

To make things worse, for the past 10 months Mr. Obama’s aides have been overpraised by their friends in the media, who either are on their side or were source-greasing. How can you not return my calls when I called you “coruscatingly brilliant” in Time?

I use “coruscatingly brilliant” because it was what a columnist early on called Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a figure in John F. Kennedy’s White House and the focus of much, and deserved, praise. JFK saw it and laughed: “Just remember, a hundred thousand votes the other way and we’d all be coruscatingly stupid.” JFK was of course young himself, but he’d fought a war and been sick since childhood, which will tend to age you.

Why be concerned about the young in the White House? Because they’ve never been beaten up by life, never been defeated. They haven’t learned from failure because they haven’t experienced it. They don’t know what the warning signs of trouble are. They haven’t spent time on the losing side.

Mr. Obama’s young aides are hardworking, humorous and bright as pennies, but I wish they had an arthritic ache or two, I wish they told old war stories because they’d been in old wars, I wish they knew what it looks like when an administration goes too far and strains the ties between itself and the bulk of the people.

*   *   *

They are all now busy planning and strategizing his congressional address on health care. It will be hard to pull off well. The president will be talking, essentially, to three groups: the political elites of both parties and the media, his supporters on the ground, and highly informed citizens who are already either for or against the plan but want to hear, ponder and form an opinion on the speech.

But the great mass of Americans, the big center, will, I strongly suspect, not be listening. Mr. Obama has grown boring. And it’s not Solid Boring, which is fine in a president and may be good. It’s sort of Faux Eloquent Boring, especially on health care. The president likely doesn’t know this, and his people won’t have told him because they don’t know it either, but Mr. Obama always has the same sound, approach, logic, tone, modulation. He always has the same stance. There’s no humor or humility in it. News is surprise, and he never makes news.

The past 10 months, the president has lessened and not increased the trust of the big center. He did a number of things wrong, but one has not been noticed much, or noted. He moved too quickly, before he’d earned the right to change a big chunk of American life. You earn that right by establishing trust. Absent crisis, leaders have to show, over a certain amount of time and through a series of actions, that they’re sober, sound, farsighted, looking out for the middle. In addition, of course, middle America is worried about two dramas, the economy and war, and he’s showing he’s worried about a third drama, health care, which they’ve put to the side. His concerns do not coincide with theirs. Which makes him, not them, look out of touch.

He could always surprise everyone by saying he made a mistake and he’s going back to the drawing board to work hand in hand with Republicans. That would be interesting, and could be quite productive. But no one expects a climbdown at this point. And so he will go on, and win something, some piece of what he wants, and “Obama Wins Health Care Battle” will wind up in the headlines, and it will be a catastrophic victory, won at the price of losing the big center.

*   *   *

The president’s biggest potential long-term problem in terms of the public part of the presidency became obvious to me only during the past week.

I watched with great interest much of Teddy Kennedy’s wake and funeral, and saw in a clearer way than I had in the past a big cultural difference between the elites of the two parties, or rather the Democratic and Republican establishments. Pretty much the entire Democratic establishment was at the Kennedy services, and the level of shown affection among those in the pews and the audience was striking—laughing, hugging, telling stories, admitting weaknesses, weeping. It was Irish, and old-time. If it had been a gathering of the Republican political and journalistic establishment it would have been less emotive, with little shown affection. Polite laughter, cordial handshakes, a lot of staring ahead. A guy with his head down and you think he’s mourning but he’s BlackBerrying. They don’t especially like each other, they compete against each other, and they don’t feel the need to fake liking each other. They have the old dignity of the old grown-ups. And I suppose their style reflects some of their philosophy: Politics isn’t about emotions but thoughts.

The difference between the party establishments struck me, but is not my point. This is: The president walked into the funeral and moved toward the front pews nodding, shaking hands. He hugged Mrs. Kennedy, nodded some more, shook more hands. He was dignified and contained, he was utterly appropriate, and he was cold.

He is cold, like someone who is contained not because he’s disciplined and successfully restrains his emotions, but because there’s not that much to restrain. This is the dark side of cool. One wonders if this will play well with the American people. Long-term it is hard to get people to trust your policies if they think you’re coolly operating on some intellectual or ideological abstractions.

I don’t think as a presidential style it will wear well with the center. And it may not wear well with the president’s own party. They may come to see him, in time, as not really one of them. And that’s when things will really get interesting.