Obama’s X Factors


During his first year in office, President Obama hasn't strayed far from his game plan. Still, he is roughed up with regularity by the right, the left, the media, and - if polls are to be believed - even many of his core supporters.

Why? Beyond legitimate policy questions, several X factors are affecting the way this president is perceived. Among them:

He’s a chin lifter. Some folks are chin-droppers, tilting their heads down while glancing up, as Lyndon Johnson did to signal impatience with those around him. But chin-lifters tilt their heads back so the chin is elevated and the gaze is downward. Jack Benny perfected this posture to convey haughtiness. Bill Clinton is also a chin-lifter, often adding a stiffened lower lip and projecting an emotional stone wall.

Obama's problem is that his chin lifting is apparently benign; he means nothing by it. But unlike his other subconscious mannerisms - such as saying "ah" and "um" too often - chin lifting sends an unintended message, which in Mr. Obama's case may be read by critics as "holier than thou."

He’s having fun. Some presidents fly off to their secluded ranches to shoot guns, have barbecues and play with expensive toys, without much publicity. President Obama has a kids' playground, his wife's garden, and his own basketball court right on the White House grounds. He scoots to Broadway on dates and vacations in Hawaii.

If he didn't go for the gusto he'd be a basket case. Yet, the imagery works against him - especially among those who begrudge Mr. Obama his election victory, and those who simplistically believe that when the country is in trouble its chief executive ought never be seen enjoying himself.

He’s an intellectual. Among opponents, it's the article "an" that gets in the president's way. To be intellectual, in the manner of, say, Ronald Reagan, is requisite for the highest office; to be perceived as an intellectual, however, is the same in some circles as being, to use the far-right's favorite label, a socialist.

Successfully governing many millions of people who don't match up intellectually is a public relations challenge. The trick isn't to dumb-down the process, as George W. Bush was prone to doing, it's to take citizens as far down the intellectual path as they are capable of going, and then instilling in them the confidence that things will be handled properly for them rest of the way.

He’s not Jack Kennedy. Nor for that matter is Barack Obama Martin Luther King, Jr., although many of us allowed the obvious similarities to captivate our thinking during the campaign. Even before Caroline Kennedy marched on stage to assure us that she, too, saw flashes of Camelot in Mr. Obama, we had begun to dream. And with each speech that seemed to carry us to the same mountain top as envisioned by Dr. King, we began banking our blessings.

Years from now, recollections of the Obama Presidency may be as compelling as those we cling to from the sixties. But during its first 12 months we've realized that, while hope springs eternal, movement in Congress takes an eternity.

He’s cool. Although he's no Kennedy, BHO is the first cool president since JFK. Indeed, the eight intervening chief execs have been notably uncool, although Bill Clinton succeeded briefly at being hip while square.

Mr. Obama's problem is that his coolness under fire strikes some as arrogant, and he doesn't offer the overheated bromides and rhetoric that many people seem to prefer - especially when they feel their security is threatened.

He’s black. What made us think that the burdens of barrier-breaking would be any less for a president than for a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers? How many of the 58 million people who didn't vote for Obama was Rush Limbaugh speaking for when he declared, "I hope he fails"? Too many.

As Jackie Robinson learned, the barriers to getting into the game are not necessarily as intimidating as the challenge of staying there for 9 innings and managing to score despite taunts from the sidelines. It doesn't help that many of Mr. Obama's supporters view his presidency as a crusade, and anything short of that is disappointing.

So what we have here is a black, intellectual, fun-loving, cool chin-lifter, who is neither a Kennedy nor a King.

Things will be better for President Obama in Year Two. X factors only serve to hold a place in people's minds until replaced by accomplishments that really matter.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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