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The Unbearable Coolness of Obama

Sen. Barack Obama is ending this campaign just like he started it — as the coolest guy in the room.

Obama’s calm vibe is a recurring theme in campaign coverage. Flying on his plane this season, I have often been struck by his relative serenity amid his hard-working aides, amped supporters and the constant surveillance of the traveling press. Another writer on the plane, Jeff Zeleny, captures Obama’s aura in a contemplative article for today’s New York Times:

While Mr. Obama smiles less than he once did, gauging his mood simply by looking at him is risky: his baseline cool temperament has seldom spiked along the rocky points of his journey …. Whatever emotions or anxiety Mr. Obama feels as his candidacy draws to a close, he displays little of it, either in public appearances or private conversations with his close advisers.

That demeanor is quite unusual in presidential candidates. Matt Bai, another Times writer, recently studied how Obama’s unflappable calm plays on the trail, both as a clear strength and potential shortcoming:

It is often said in politics that a candidate’s strength is also his weakness.** Obama’s greatest asset as a candidate, the trait that has enabled him to overcome both a thin résumé and the resistance of his own party’s establishment, is his placidity.** Even more than through his ability to give a rousing speech … Obama has differentiated himself from recent Democrats by conveying a sense of inner security that is highly unusual in a business of people who have chosen to spend every day asking people to love them … Obama is content to meet the world on his terms, and something about that inspires confidence.

And yet that same lack of pathetic neediness may in fact be a detriment when it comes to persuading voters who, culturally or ideologically, just aren’t predisposed to like him. I once heard a friend of Obama’s compare him with Bill Clinton this way: if Clinton sees you walking down the other side of the street, he immediately crosses over to shake your hand; if Obama sees you coming, he nods and waits for you to cross. That image returned to me as I watched Obama campaign [recently in Virginia]. Clinton wouldn’t have wanted to leave that gym until every last voter had been converted … Obama doesn’t connect to the world that way, which is probably why his campaign has always preferred big rallies to hand-to-hand venues. Obama gives the impression that he’s going to show up and make his case, and if you don’t fall in love with him, well, he’ll just have to pick up the pieces and go on. (emphasis added).

Obama has been this way during his entire time on the national stage — an incredibly intense though relatively brief period.

When most candidates were maxing out their retail politicking during the Iowa caucuses, showing signs of Bai’s “pathetic neediness,” Obama was the candidate of negative space. The Democratic star conveyed power, as my friend Eli Sanders wrote at the time, through that restraint:

His and his allure are in his restraint, in its implicit promise that there is something more to him, something different, something that seems new but is actually old. It’s that seemingly paradoxical thing that used to draw people to America: .

As the entire world looks to Obama in these last, tense days of a momentous campaign, it’s really no surprise that Obama is characteristically calm, with his equilibrium perfectly intact.

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