A Matter of Style

A young, stylish Barack Obama

I’m speaking of the president’s style, which seems to be getting a lot of unwelcome attention lately. And I’m not referring to his personal style, which is generally impeccable. I can’t remember when America has had such a graceful and elegant president. The man never seems to put a foot wrong (an attribute he shares with all babies everywhere, who never look awkward no matter what position they’re filmed in). This is an eminently photogenic president. I’ve only seen him look less than elegant on one occasion, and that was his regrettable first pitch at the Nationals’ opening day last year…(shudder)…a moment best forgotten by baseball fans.

But in recent days there’s been a fair amount of concentration on the president’s governing style…and not just from the right, either. Ruth Marcus caused quite a stir this month when she accused Obama of running a “Where’s Waldo” presidency:

For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president. There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action—unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful.

Is this man a loof?

This drumbeat of criticism has accelerated with the steady barrage of bad news in recent weeks. Earthquakes, tidal waves, market crashes, union fury, and domestic turmoil over state and federal budgets swirl around him with relentless ferocity while he remains calm (some say “aloof” and “detached”) at the center of the storm.

The latest criticism hones in on something that would seem wholly innocuous under any other circumstances…the President filling out his NCAA brackets. “Inappropriate!” screams the right. “Callous! Indifferent! Tone deaf!” And if that’s not enough, he’s also getting grief for his family’s planned trip to Rio during the Obama girls’ spring break. Even his occasional golf games are coming under scrutiny.

The same right wing that mocked the president mercilessly during the BP spill for saying his daughter wanted him to “plug the hole, Daddy,” now seems to believe he should, from his desk in the Oval Office, be single-handedly managing Japan’s nuclear crisis and earthquake.

So is this just a matter of normal, garden-variety partisan sniping, or is there some validity to it? One of our bloggers has famously described Obama’s style as being “preternaturally calm.” But is it too much so? Maybe Americans would be happier with their president if he would just freak out a bit…wring his hands in despair…maybe even bite his lip and shed a few tears.

Personally I prefer a leadership style that’s more reflective of Rudyard Kipling’s poem:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

But in an intense media age when all politics is largely theater, maybe that kind of calm, measured, steady approach just doesn’t fly any more.

About filistro

Filistro is a Canadian writer and prairie dog who maintains burrows on both sides of the 49th parallel. Like all prairie dogs, she is keenly interested in politics and language. (Prairie dogs have been known to build organized towns the size of Maryland, and are the only furry mammal with a documented language.)
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41 Responses to A Matter of Style

  1. dcpetterson says:

    Personally, I’d rather have this quiet, no-drama, thoughtful approach than the panicked arms-flailing “Fire! Ready! Aim!” that we had with the last Administration. And when conservatives complained not a bit about Bush taking vacation for about a third of the time he was in office, they can’t complain now that Obama occasionally golfs.

  2. mclever says:

    I’m a big fan of a captain who can maintain a steady-as-she-goes attitude even in the midst of a hurricane. That’s the kind of leadership that helps prevent others from excessive panic and overreaction.

    I would expect those who’ve served in the military to have a similar preference for leaders who keep calm under fire, too.

  3. filistro says:

    I know what our righties are going to say about this… but I’m really interested in the th response from the left. I’d like to know (from a messaging standpoint) if this meme is beginning to gain any traction among the president’s supporters.

    Looking at the issue with unflinching honesty… DO you wish he’d present a somewhat different style? Are you worried at all about the image he projects? Are there some changes you wish he’d make?

    I’m not sure how to answer those questions myself. I think I’ll have some coffee and ponder it…

  4. mclever says:


    For me personally, while I haven’t agreed with every decision Obama has made, his style and demeanor and approach have been exactly the sort of calm, measured, reasoned leadership that I wanted and expected of him. The style he is presenting is part of why I voted for him, so those criticizing him aren’t making any dent in my support. On the contrary, the more I hear conservatives bewailing that he needs to be more of an aggressive cowboy, the more confident I become that he’s doing the right thing.

    I don’t know if the complaints about his style are making inroads with liberals or progressives. I’m sure there are some, because there are always people who will complain and worry no matter what. And there are certainly plenty of moderates and independents who will be swayed by whatever the prevailing storyline is in the media. But I’m not sure that changing his style would actually help–it would just mean more complaints from a different segment. There’d be the “no different from Bush” segment or the “flailing with inexperience” segment getting more attention instead of the “how dare he act like an adult” segment.

    The expectation of a persistent presence of the President in the media is a relatively new phenomenon. Personally, I’d rather have him getting stuff done than spending all of his time in front of the camera. No, I also didn’t have a problem with him doing NCAA brackets. That took, what, an hour out of his day? It was light-hearted, humanizing, and frankly he made pretty damn good picks. (He’d be winning my office pool for sure!) I have no problem with Presidents playing a round of golf or taking a short vacation, either. Everyone knows that people are actually more productive if they get the occasional break. He’s not been taking excessive holidays (he’s taken the least of any modern President except Carter), about on par with Clinton and far less than Bush I, Bush II, or Reagan. I think he just gets more attention because his vacations are to Hawaii. And, if he hadn’t done the NCAA brackets, then we’d be hearing how he’s so very out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking this month.

    He can’t win with the complainers.

  5. Mule Rider says:

    “There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action—unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment.”

    My response to Mrs. Marcus would be that far too often in the early portion of Obama’s presidency, he was right in the middle of ALL the action–all-too-willing, eager, and even early to weigh in on the issue of the moment. It didn’t matter how local, remote, etc. the issue – and I blame the media for much of this although Obama gladly obliged – but it always devolved into, “Well, what do you think about [insert inane issue], Mr. President?”

    I for one appreciate a President that doesn’t weigh in on everything. He’s not God. And he has bigger things to worry about than feral cats running loose in Hoboken, NJ, or whether or not they should cancel the Swashbuckling festival in Topeka, KS (just made those up as examples so please don’t Google it thinking you’ll find anything). This “quieter” and more “behind-the-scenes” Obama is much more pleasant for this conservative. Yeah, I still get a little sick when I come across news stories like, “How Does Your NCAA Bracket Stack Up Against President Obama’s?” Not because I think he should instead be putting on his Superman cape and single-handedly cooling the nuclear reactors in Japan and cleaning up the mess there or tracking down Qhaddafi himself to kill him with his bare hands but because when I go to ESPN or FoxSports or whatever to get my “sports fix,” I only want to see actual sports items and prefer to have at least a momentary detachment from all things politics. Seriously, is that too much to ask?

    But I digress….

  6. Mule Rider says:

    For the record – sorry for the brief off-topic tangent – but my NCAA bracket had a rough and tumble couple of rounds but can still finish pretty strong. I got 20 of 32 right for the first round and only 8 of the “Sweet 16” right, and I can only get 5 of the “Elite 8” right at this point. However, my Final 4 (OSU, Kansas, SDSU, and BYU) are all still intact. And with Pitt going down, my BYU pick (which is also my national champion pick) looks pretty good out of that bracket as long as they sneak past Florida. Sorry, Gator, if you’re reading…

  7. dcpetterson says:

    Mule Rider, I want to commend you on an excellent attitude. Yes, I think the media often does dumb stuff, like asking the President for his World Series picks, or asking actors to weigh on on drug enforcement policy, or the conduct of foreign wars.

    filistro, as for “style,” I agree with mclever, That slow, measured, preternaturally calm approach was precisely what I voted for.

    I recall Bill Clinton got lambasted from the right because of his empathetic “I feel your pain” style. Obama is getting hit from the same people for not doing that. So I think a great part of it is the typical partisan whining.

    I also think some of it plays into a common (not universal) conservative distrust of intellectualism. That Obama thinks before he flails — and then he doesn’t flail — goes against a lot of the style of the modern far right. The Bush Admin was all about keeping people afraid, and acting out of fear rather than out of cautious and careful consideration. It’s easier to control people who are afraid, much harder to control people who think. That Obama shows it is possible to think shakes the foundation of that group’s power.

  8. filistro says:

    Muley… don’t mess with feral cats!

  9. frk says:

    A Democrat here.
    Do I wish for a different style, a different image from Obama? No. Like dc and mclever, I appreciate a calm, controlled, real human being in the Oval Office. I haven’t been pleased with the deer-in-the headlights, smarmy, Teflon, sweatin’ liar, womanizing types.
    So. No changes in style. Changes in policy? Likely. A few. But then it’s always easy to second-guess the person in our constitutional republic based on a representative democracy who’s making ultimate decisions that may not be supported by the legislature, isn’t it?. It’s different when you are the person making decisions that can effect the world. Just ask Obama–he’s been a legislator and the chief executive: a second-guesser and a “decider”.

  10. filistro says:

    @DC… I also think some of it plays into a common (not universal) conservative distrust of intellectualism. That Obama thinks before he flails — and then he doesn’t flail — goes against a lot of the style of the modern far right.

    That’s an excellent point. Particularly on the right (for some reason that escapes me, since it seems out of character for them) we have become a culture that values emotion over intellect. We don’t have to think about anything very hard.. we just have to feel… and then EMOTE!

    As Josh Marshall says (devastatingly)… “I’m waiting for John McCain to announce that we’re all Benghazians now.”

  11. filistro says:

    frk… I find myself growing quite fond of you… 🙂

  12. filistro says:

    Muley… as always you bring up an excellent point. I had almost forgotten how furious the righties were back in the early days when Obama was everywhere. There were constant howls of “If it’s 10 a.m., The One must be on television… Who does he think he is? Hey, Big Ears, give it a rest! Get off the podium and start doing your job!”

    So he draws back and quietly does the job, and they howl that he’s “detached and aloof.”


  13. Mule Rider says:


    re: feral cats

    OMG!!! What the hell were those things??? Were they out there mating with mountain lions or something??? Geez!

    “Muley… as always you bring up an excellent point. I had almost forgotten how furious the righties were back in the early days when Obama was everywhere.”

    Yeah, unfortunately, some people who just want an excuse to dislike the man will bitch no matter what he does. I, at least, try to consistently apply my displeasure for certain things, and I’m not someone who wants to hear out of the President or any other policitican (of any stripe) 24/7….hell, not even 1/7….more like 0.1/3, at most!

  14. filistro says:

    Muley… the feral cats are in Australia, which really has a big problem with them (it’s estimated there are 12 million feral cats across the continent.)

    On the bright side, maybe the feral cats can eat the feral rabbits and solve another big problem.

    Isn’t Nature wonderful? 🙂

    They probably won’t eat the cane toads, though.

    Eww, yuck…

    My favorite graf from the article:

    Cane toads are not protected by Australian wildlife regulations, but they are covered under animal-welfare laws, so any killing must be humane. Australia’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) suggests putting the toads to sleep in a refrigerator for 12 hours, and then placing them in a freezer for 24 hours. The RSPCA’s previous suggestion of putting them to sleep by smearing hemorrhoid cream on their backs never caught on.

    Ooops… is this off-topic?

  15. Chris Rich says:

    Nice work Ms Filistro,

    I expect the right to be grotesquely inconsistent and ridiculous cause they just want to win and gravity was abolished. It’s the whining left that drives me crazy.

    America has not been and won’t likely be their pipe dream any time soon. It is a nation of avaricious euro mutts who fled a semi feudal class system in Europe to sanctify greed here while half exterminating the more thoughtful inhabitants they found.

    We are talking about people who gave us Vegas, an unsustainable farcical monstrosity in a quasi desert, our Mecca with a pair of dice to kiss instead of a shiny black rock.

    Most humane potential sleeps in the personal sphere outside one’s door and all is incremental. The idiot left thinks if it just types enough stuff and yaps enough, this bunch of money grubbing wrecks will see things their way.

    So yes, Obama practices leadership the way it has long been before TV showed up and few now know what it looks like.

    Cane toads…The poor Aussies have all manner of poisonous critter hazards I hear, really scary spiders too.

  16. Number Seven says:

    Hemmorhoid cream kills toads? Or did you really mean makes them sleep so they can be frozen?

  17. filistro says:

    #7… Hemmorhoid cream kills toads?

    Are you trying to tempt me off topic again? 😉

    I think maybe it just puts them to sleep… (a side effect of hemmorhoid cream that had heretofore escaped me.)

    If it really kills toads, we should send a few gallons of Prep H to Washington.

  18. Number Seven says:

    Touche, dear Fili!

    I actually thought you were serious and was thinking, heck, if this kills toads, why are people putting it on their bung holes?

    Just want to add I think the link to Keith Olbermann should be changed to his blog, FOK News since he is no longer with MSNBC.

  19. filistro says:

    #7… actually I thought the advice from the Australian SPCA was kind of alarming. When their nifty idea about putting hemmorhoid cream on the toads’ backs didn’t “catch on”, their fallback policy was to advise Australians to “put the toads to sleep in the refrigerator for 12 hours” prior to freezing them.

    Cane toads grow to be as much as a foot long, weigh up to 5 pounds and secrete a noxious venom through their pores. I gotta say, the last thing I’d EVER want to find in my refrigerator is a not-entirely-dead cane toad…

    As to how this conversation went from the president’s image to the loathsome cane toad.. .I blame Muley. Notice how as soon as a conservative enters any conversation, it starts to veer off track? 😉

  20. Good catch, #7. Fixed.

  21. Monotreme says:

    -caine vs. Cane.

    Some hemorrhoid creams contain lidocaine, benzocaine, and the like, which are absorbed through the toad’s skin and deaden the nervous system. Then they can be dispatched humanely.

    We used to grab frogs and toads by the footsies and smack their heads smartly against a corner of the lab bench, but that was a different time and place and I wouldn’t advise it anymore, especially with a poisonous toad that might exude and spray toxins all over the place. Unless you’re a toadsucker, in which case, all bets are off.

    I like the President’s style. I don’t think he’s a toadsucker. I think the Loony Right are just jealous of his success, especially after their guy ran the family car in the ditch.

  22. Mr. Universe says:


    I left the link up there in anticipation of Olbermann’s new show in June

  23. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Earlier talk about the Left divide on the Libyan excursion. Well now it seems the same, only more so on the Right.

    Some say, “Too late” – Palin
    Some say, “too little” – Graham
    Some say, “too specific” – Gingrich
    Some say, “Why at all?” – Paul

    I was always told that if EVERYBODY was pissed, you MUST be doing the right thing.

  24. Todd Dugdale says:

    So is this just a matter of normal, garden-variety partisan sniping“?

    Pretty much, yes.

  25. Justsayin' says:

    I like Obama’s style, as he very quietly gets “some” things done. I get tired of all the criticism and “the outrage”. It doesn’t matter what he trying to do someone, left or right is just outraged!!! I’d vote for him again.

  26. Monotreme says:

    Reality bites: only 7% blame President Obama for the economic crisis.


  27. mclever says:

    There are a lot of encouraging results in that poll, Monotreme. Thanks for posting it. Apparently, ~80% of Americans realize they don’t want a government shutdown, for example. Tea Party congress critters should be wary of those kinds of numbers.

  28. And, as usual, people don’t want to give up benefits, nor do they want to pay for them. What a surprise.

  29. mclever says:

    Of course, Michael. But a significant majority placed higher priority on jobs than the deficit, which is probably the right order in the current economic situation. The way the deficit hawks have been hyping it, I would have guessed that there would be more who placed higher priority on budget cutting.

  30. GROG says:

    @Mono: Reality bites: only 7% blame President Obama for the economic crisis.

    This would be one of the great reversals in the history of political polling. Just six months ago 48% blamed Obama according to Gallup. Now it’s down to 7%? Incrdible.


  31. dcpetterson says:

    Well gosh, GROG, the Republicans were swept into power by a tsunami of epic proportions five months ago. People are impatient. Where are the jobs?

    Or maybe they remembered when Obama was elected, as compared to when the economy collapsed. (Hint: there is value in getting the sequence right.)

    Or perhaps they found an information source other than FOX Tales.

    Most likely, it had to do with how the question was actually worded, and what the choices were.

  32. GROG says:

    Or maybe they remembered when Obama was elected, as compared to when the economy collapsed. (Hint: there is value in getting the sequence right.)

    True. They’ve probably realized how the economy started collapsing after the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress and how the housing market and Democrate led Fannie and Freddie brought the economy to it’s knees.

  33. msgkings says:

    LOL at GROG 09:21

    C’mon, brother, that kind of sad play won’t work here…

  34. GROG says:

    Great analysis, msgkings.

  35. msgkings says:

    As good as yours, GROG

  36. GROG,

    They’ve probably realized how the economy started collapsing after the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress and how the housing market and Democrate led Fannie and Freddie brought the economy to it’s knees.

    You bring up a point worth a bit more depth of analysis. Democrats tend to blame Bush (by way of Wall Street) for the collapse, while Republicans tend to blame Congressional Democrats and Clinton (by way of the FHA, Fannie, and Freddie) for the collapse. Both sides do so out of ignorance, looking for a nice, easy explanation for what happened.

    The truth is far more complex. I have an article in the works about that, too, but it’s hard to distill it in a way that works at 538 Refugees. rgbact had a grain of truth in his accusations about the causes of the collapse, but because he didn’t understand the meaning behind the words (he was just repeating what he heard), it was impossible to actually discuss it with him, sadly.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point, when discussing projected election outcomes. Voters’ behavior pays lip service to the truth. It’s more about the marketing of the “easy, obvious” (and wrong) villains who are to blame. Since the diehard partisans already made up their minds, it will come down to what the less-informed moderates come to believe. Wall Street made the marketing much easier by the free distribution of big bonuses while everyone else was hurting. It’s hard to overcome that sort of gaffe. For this reason I suspect that the less partisan, less informed voter will buy the Wall Street meme, and pin the blame on the GOP.

  37. GROG says:


    When I say it was the fault of the congressional Dems, I’m saying that a bit with tongue in cheek. It’s usually in response to a sweeping statement made by dcpetterson who pins the blame completely 100% on Bush and Republicans. So to prove a point I turn it on the Dems to show it’s simpleminded to blame only Bush and only Repubulicans. (As it is to blame only congressional Dems.)

    I’m very interested in reading the piece you’re working on.

  38. msgkings says:

    I too look forward to that piece. I think it’s unquestionable that the housing-triggered financial meltdown had far more than one cause and one villain to blame.

  39. PoliticalJeff says:

    I have a number of criticisms of Obama:. For example, he goes to Brazil and says he wants to be the the their best customer of the oil from their offshore reserves, then makes an energy speech saying that his goal is to make America indepent from foreign oil sources. If drilling offshore is good for so Brazil, why is it not good for the US?

    I also dislike his willingness to lead on certain issues, we never saw White House health care plan and his budget proposals were outsourced to Pelosi and Reid.

    Some of us believe that the greatest threat facing the US is a confluence between budget deficits and debt.

  40. filistro says:

    @Jeff… his budget proposals were outsourced to Pelosi and Reid

    I’m getting really interested in this constant drumbeat from the right that Obama is “not leading” or has “failed to lead” on budget issues. To me it has a strong whiff of Frank Luntz (phew!)

    I think the GOP is fully aware that their “budget fixes” are overreaching and excessively burdensome to the middle class, and are going to be massively unpopular. So they’re trying really hard to goad the president into going first and drawing the fire, thus getting tagged with responsibility for these brutal measures.

    Thankfully, he’s too calm, smart and level-headed to take the bait. If the GOP wants to cut right to the bone, let them get out there and OWN their budget-slashing agenda.

  41. Max aka Birdpilot says:


    Please show me the clause in the Constitution where introducing the Budget is the responsibility of the President. I always thought revenue and appropriations were a function of Congress.

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