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The Perils of Life Above the Fray

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012. Photo courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

Today’s post by Tony Lucadamo inaugurates a new partnership between Riding the Tiger and the Virginia Policy Review.

In watching CNN’s documentary, “Obama Revealed: The Man, The President,” one word continually recurred throughout: cool. On the program, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about how cool the President is under pressure. Secretary of State Clinton discusses how cool her former adversary was in the run-up to Bin Laden’s assassination.

Yet, over the course of the program the word takes on a new connotation. Is the President perhaps, too cool? Has he grown overly aloof in his first term in office? Is he too professorial for his own good? Perhaps there is no longer a place for great mediators in the rough and tumble of today’s political environment.

Certainly, that was not the case four years ago. Lofty rhetoric shot then-Senator Obama from obscurity into prominence. Once in the running, his coolness helped unseat the vaunted Clinton machine. Candidate Obama spoke of hope and change while aides readied daggers behind their collective cloaks. Conversely, Hillary Clinton waited too long to go negative. When she did, it mostly came from her husband. It thus sounded disjointed and did not connect with the electorate.

That was part of Obama’s genius in the 2008 election. In an age of adversarial politics, candidate Obama kept his reputation squeaky clean. It confounded the opposition. If they attacked him they appeared petty. When they sat still, Obama’s soaring rhetoric lifted him higher and higher in the polls.

By all accounts, Obama governs much the same way he campaigns. In reading Ron Chernow’s recent work Washington: A Life, I saw a number of parallels.

Our nation’s first President was similarly more moderator than dictator. Washington was content to let his cabinet debate while he ruminated. Indeed, just about any historian would give a great deal to have been a fly on that wall. Imagine standing by while Secretaries Hamilton and Jefferson struggled for the last word. Once satisfied with the facts, the General gave the final judgment.    

For better or worse, President Obama leads similarly. On more than one occasion, the details of major legislation have been left to Congress. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Health Care Act come to mind as a prime examples. The broad outline may have been the executive’s, yet the fine print was most certainly not. 

Obama is unique from his recent counterparts in this way. At least on some matters, he is far more content with letting the legislative branch wrangle over details rather than impose executive order. It fits right in line with the aloofness that defines him on and off the campaign trail. 

Accordingly, the re-election bid has gone largely by an anticipated script. For all Romney’s huffing and puffing there have been a number of publicized missteps. Amidst it all, the President has been happy to play the calming force in the storm. The harder the opposition tried, the further they dug themselves into a hole.

Then something funny happened. That coolness so long lauded, finally tarnished.

When the candidates took to the stage in Denver for the first presidential debate, the President’s apparent strategy was this: Stay cool. You are ahead in the polls and the Republican nominee has a habit of making a gaffe or two. Do not take any bait. Do not over-extend yourself. Do not give him material for an attack ad. Just--be cool.

But Romney was ready for it. As James Carville rightly observed, he was the only one who looked happy to be there. He was lively. He rattled off statistics. He attacked the President’s record with abandon. He made bold claims free of rebuttal.

All the while the President was, in a word, cool. Rather than rebuke his assailant, he gave lofty professorial lectures. And he suffered for it. The tried and true strategy is now the architect of a Republican surge. His loftiness has extended to the point that he no longer seems relatable.

Now all eyes are on the President. A somewhat sleepy midterm has sprung to life. Will Obama go on the offensive in round two? With closing numbers in the swing states and less than month to go, he may have to.  A change in posture may not only decide tonight’s debate, but perhaps the entire election.

Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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