Why So Serious?

Parsing the Post's piece on Obama's "happiness deficit"

The editorial page of The Washington Post has a well-established reputation for its hawkish stance on fiscal matters, so it was no surprise that Fred Hiatt, the page’s editor, devoted his column yesterday to the deficit.

But, in a twist, Hiatt was actually writing about Barack Obama’s “happiness deficit,” and how it’s affecting his presidency. Let’s read along:

Here’s a theory about why President Obama is having a tough political time right now: He doesn’t seem all that happy being president.

Now that you mention it, photos of the president looking pensive/tired/distraught do seem to be more common lately. But here’s an alternate theory: He decided to devote his first year to passing a major overhaul of health care, which has unsurprisingly turned out to be a challenge. Also, the economy stinks. But actually, times may not be that tough after all: there’s no telling yet, but that health care reform thing might actually happen. And at least he’s more popular than the rest of Washington.

I know, it’s the world’s hardest job, and between war and the world economy collapsing, he didn’t have the first year he might have wished for. And, yes, he’s damned either way: With thousands of Americans risking their lives overseas and millions losing their jobs at home, we’d slam him if he acted carefree.

Yes, we would—because no matter what the president is doing, someone in the press is prepared to write a column arguing that he’s doing it all wrong.

Still, I think Americans want a president who seems, despite everything, to relish the challenge. They don’t want to have to feel grateful to him for taking on the burden.

Partial credit for phrasing this as “I think Americans want…” rather than simply “Americans want.” But next time, take Henry Farrell’s advice—substitute “I want” for “Americans want,” and save readers the trouble.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when Obama confidant David Axelrod, noting that the president always makes time for his daughters’ recitals and soccer games, told the New York Times, “I think that’s part of how he sustains himself through all this.”

Really? Is the presidency something to sustain yourself through?

Aspiring column writers: note the skillful use of a weeks-old boilerplate quote from an aide as the threadbare cloth from which a new column is spun. Also, the affectation of populist resentment. That’s how the pros do it!

He did ask for this job; we didn’t make him take it. And so it seems fair to ask: What part of it does he enjoy? Formulating rational solutions to complex problems, for sure.

That seems like it could be useful in a president.

But schmoozing with foreign leaders, like President George H.W. Bush? In a column last week, Jackson Diehl pointed out that Obama’s relations with just about every counterpart are prickly.

Schmoozing with foreign leaders can be good, or it can be bad. (As Diehl noted, that whole thing with W. looking into Putin’s soul didn’t pan out too well.) But weren’t we talking about what “Americans want” from their president? This is, maybe, priority number 7,608 on that score.

How about horse-trading or arm-twisting, like President Lyndon Johnson? George Will last week cited a recent Obama statement on the health-care bill (“Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people”) to point out that Obama views such politics with a certain disdain.

OK, this is a fair point regarding what Obama said. On the other hand, his actions don’t exactly indicate an unwillingness to make a deal.

Putting his feet up on his desk after a long day and chewing over events with aides, like Bill Clinton? If insider accounts are to be believed, Obama would rather preside briskly over the meeting and then go up to the family quarters or out for some basketball.

Clinton was routinely criticized as unpresidential and inefficient on precisely these grounds. See again the point re: presidential strategy/style as that an all-purpose topic of criticism.

Does he recharge by heading back to the campaign trail, rolling up his sleeves and wading into the crowd? Obama will do that if he has to, to save his health-care bill. But he can’t persuade us he gets much of a kick out of it.

Wait… hasn’t Charles Krauthammer, one of the stars of the Post op-ed page, been telling us for two years that Obama is a great big narcissist who lives off the adulation of cult-like crowds?

And here’s what makes this so complicated: The fact that Obama doesn’t get a kick out of adoring throngs is one of the qualities that made him so appealing in the first place. Unlike with Clinton, we never felt as though he needed us; he’s a secure, self-confident adult.

As you are about to admit, that’s a good thing.

That’s a good thing. Yes, Obama would rather have dinner with his wife than with, say, John Boehner. Wouldn’t you? (With your own spouse, I mean; you don’t get to choose dinner with Michelle.) I’m glad to have a president for whom family values isn’t just a slogan — and a president who cares about policy.

This is a strange way of showing it.

We understand that, even without war and recession, it wouldn’t be easy. His predecessor partied and stuck him with the tab. The Republicans are reliably obstructionist; his Democrats reliably unreliable. The media are carping, superficial and relentless. He is a prisoner of the Secret Service.

“The media are carping, superficial and relentless.” But not self-aware.

And yet. It’s hard to remember so far back, but the administration didn’t come to town with the sense of weariness and duty that it now projects. Unlike the Bush crowd, which never stopped kvetching about having to leave Texas, the Obamas and their circle spoke about the honor of service and the excitement of being in the nation’s capital

A year later, here’s how they came across to People Magazine:

“It was their first interview of the New Year on Jan. 8 in the rose-colored library on the ground floor of the White House. President Obama spoke in such a hush about the loneliness of his decisions on war and terrorism that one could hear between his words the tick of an old lighthouse clock across the room.”

Does this make anyone else think of Edgar Allen Poe?

Do Americans really want to hear the tick of the old lighthouse clock? Or would they prefer the good cheer that we associate with FDR or JFK, the jauntiness with which they took over the White House and made it theirs?

They might also prefer jobs. JFK and his stunningly telegenic family cut a jaunty profile, but a booming economy didn’t hurt his reputation. FDR had that whole Depression thing to deal with, but he did his damnedest to put people to work.

Less lugubriousness wouldn’t necessarily buy him a health-care bill. But in the long run, Americans might find it easier to root for or with Obama if he’d show us, despite everything, that he’s happy we hired him.

They might. But I’m guessing he’d settle for the health-care bill right about now.

The piece reminds me of something smart Ta-Nehisi Coates said about column-writing last August, in the wake of Niall Ferguson comparing Obama to Felix the Cat (they were both “not only black,” but also “very, very lucky”):

Once you become a brand, you feel the need to feed the beast. But the beast isn’t natural. You don’t have something important to say each and every week. And you certainly don’t have something important to say each week, at 800-1000 words. Yet the demand is still there.

Actually, Hiatt’s column was only 730 words, and he only writes biweekly. But the point holds.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.