Temperament

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but David Brooks has an absolutely wonderful piece out today about measuring the temperament of the two presidential candidates against each other.

It is, I believe, about as close to a full throated endorsement that Brooks can make of a Democrat.

What do you look for in a president?  Moreover, what does anyone look for in a president?  The answer to this question is forever in flux; we know this because if there was a hard set right answer, it would be in a book somewhere, a safely guarded secret that is passed from one to the next like a legacy, or goes to the grave with its owner unrevealed.

There’s a romanticism about some secret formula to becoming the president, but we know there just isn’t one.  Each president springs from the circumstances of their times–a presidency is forged surely out of hardwork and determination, but is also equally shaped from luck, from being the right thing and the right time.

With Reagan, we were looking not just for an escape from the economy of Jimmy Carter’s administration, but also for a reason to be proud of our country again.  With Clinton, the cliche is that it was the economy, stupid.  With the second Bush, it was about erasing the indiscretions of a scandal as well as it was about elevating the image of the common man; an homage to the president you want to have a beer with (even if the man in question was a recovering alcoholic that probably wouldn’t actually drink a beer).

All of this, the history of the latter generations, has conspired to create the conditions that define what we are looking for in the next President of the United States.  With a full 90% of the nation believing we are on the wrong track, with the current president seeing the worst approval and disapproval ratings of any president in history, we can see that definition take shape.

The logic is not complex.  We have a president who is intellectually incurious, and so we want to make sure the next president is the opposite of that.  We have a president who stumbles over himself when he speaks, and so we want someone who fully grasps the concept of communication.  We have a president who is tumultuous in his emotional make up, who gets angry, and flustered, petulant and defensive when he is challenged, and so we look for someone who shows the signs of self discipline, and portrays that admirable trait of being able to make reasoned decisions even when he is in the midst of a maelstrom.

It is this last reason, above all others, that Obama was seen as the clear winner of all three debates with McCain.  Someone, I can’t remember who, once wrote that there’s just something about Obama that drives his opponents crazy.  After watching him on the campaign trail for two years, it is clear what that quality is.

It’s not that it is difficult to ruffle his feathers; it’s virtually impossible.  It’s not just that we’ve never seen him lose his temper, we haven’t even seen him come close.  We’ve seen Hillary Clinton waving papers and in a condemning tone, bark, “Shame on you!” and we have seen John McCain’s eyerolls, and grunts, and mumbles under his breath, but even when his opponents are heaping the kitchen sink, and the bathroom sink, and the neighbor’s kitchen sink at Obama, the response is always the same.

He smiles, he gives that little shake of his head, he may even chuckle a little, and when he responds his response is calm, measured, cool and collected.  You get the impression that McCain could insult his mother, and Barack Obama’s retort would be, “Is that really what you’re going to make your campaign about, John?”

And the amazing thing is that Obama has an even more admirable quality of remaining detached when he needs to be, but also showing emotion when it needs to be shown.  He shows indignation without showing anger, he shows empathy without becoming morose.  At the townhall debate, Obama spoke about his mother’s last days, about how she had to battle cancer and insurance companies at the same time, and you could feel the passion and the anger, but you also got the sense of that incredible self control that said he would take action, but not just any reckless or counterproductive action.  Instead, he would do the right thing.

I have a friend and a co-worker, a guy who voted for Bush twice, and this year he is going for Obama.  When I asked him about it, the answer he gave is the answer that I think is reflected in all those Joes and Janes Sixpack when we look at the polls.  “This is the guy I want to see on my tv when something bad happens.  He’s going to be the guy who stays calm and tells us to stay calm.  He’s the guy who’s going to say, ‘look, I got this’.”

I suppose that’s why one of the great memes about Obama that has permeated the internet is that very same phrase.  “Chill, he’s got this.”  In this election year, that is what can be defined as presidential.

4 Responses to “Temperament”

  1. Kathy says:

    Hey, guy. I wrote about the Brooks editorial in “Call It Human Nature.” It’s buried under the avalanche of posts you put up in the last couple of hours. 🙂

  2. if it makes you feel better, I’m done posting for the day.

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