The Obama Momentum: Smarts, Style Create a New Kind of Power

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States, he assumes the mantle of Leader of the Free World.

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Surely, the widespread embrace of Obama — 83 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the transition, according to a Gallup poll — is in part reaction to George W. Bush’s stunning unpopularity. But back when, the tongue-tied, regular-guy persona now widely perceived as a national embarrassment played quite differently. After a few too many rude Al Gore eye rolls during their first presidential debate, Bush’s hyper-folksiness had a certain charm. Many Americans didn’t appreciate watching the guy they’d like to have a beer with getting pooh-poohed by the smartest boy in the class. Eight years later, the drinking-buddy presidency having not worked out so well, Obama’s perceived sophistication and professorial demeanor bring communal relief. “There’s definitely a great sense of comfort in knowing that the President-elect is able to speak in a way that lifts your spirits,” says Goodwin, a condition she maintains goes beyond the gulf between Obama’s and Bush’s oratorical skills. “One of the big resources of the presidency, the ability to communicate, will be used well by this President, especially in contrast to the previous time, [and] not just the malapropisms of Bush. There was a real failure during the administration to take the American people into confidence in terms of explaining why we were going into Iraq in a way that made people understand; why we didn’t stay in Afghanistan; what happened in this economic crisis. Franklin Roosevelt always said that the American people will take anything on the chin as long as you explain it to them.”

FDR is one part of a most impressive presidential triumvirate with whom countless Obama comparisons have been drawn, some by Goodwin, who also wrote “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.” In his case, the economic times, as well as the two men’s superior communication skills, advance the parallels. Then there are the comparisons to JFK (who doesn’t cotton to youth, vitality, a young, gorgeous family?) and the biggest kahuna of all, Lincoln himself.

Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science and public policy at Brown, likens the Obama aura to that of Kennedy. She cites three presidential types: the Ronald Reagan model, garnering trust and admiration in a grandfatherly way, but difficult to relate to personally; the Bush 43/Bill Clinton type, “with weaknesses that make them very human,” and the third, into which Obama and Kennedy fall. “There’s not this, ‘You eat McDonald’s, so I identify with you,’” she explains. “Rather, it’s ‘You’re the epitome of everything that I want to be. You’re smart. You’re charismatic. You’re capable of leadership, and I want to follow you anywhere you go.’ It’s what we call the charismatic presidency.…It’s star power, essentially, and it has major implications for how successful a president is in leading the country.”

Though it cannot be acquired, like any innate gift, mathematical genius, a songbird’s voice, a terrific way with tap shoes, star power can be cultivated and channeled deftly. Indications, whether Saturday’s all-aboard Amtrak Lincoln-esque arrival in D.C. or Michelle Obama’s latter-day penchant for Sixties-ish shifts, indicate that both the President-elect and his wife are plenty skilled at doing so. And if they’re sometimes less than discreet about it — yes, we can round up every entertainment luminary imaginable for an HBO-only concert — their enchanted electorate is too agog to notice.

Yet star power is a means to more than getting elected. It has aided Obama in reaching across the aisle while invoking Ronald Reagan with a straight face; it may even make it possible for him to delay his rollback of the Bush tax cuts, a major campaign promise.
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