Thirty years ago, Jim Fallows wrote a cover article for The Atlantic that became famous for its take on Jimmy Carter's presidency. The article was entitled "The Passionless Presidency." It's perhaps the best perspective available on the Carter presidency, as worthy of a close reading now as it was then.
I thought of the Fallows piece this weekend when I read Neal Gabler's op-ed piece in The Boston Globe, which laid out this argument about the Obama presidency:
But there is one big thing that the administration lacks: passion. It is hard to remember a presidency that was as passionless as this one is – a presidency that puts down no markers, draws no lines in the sand, makes no stand. That, even more than the compromises themselves, may be what really riles Obama’s old supporters. It is that he doesn’t seem tortured by the compromise. Simply put, Obama seems to be missing the passion gene.
I agree with Gabler's take on Obama. There's something about Obama's devotion to "cool reason" that leaves me cold. Is there anything that really stirs him? Is he willing to go to the mat on anything?
By noting the Fallows piece here, I don't mean to conflate the two arguments about these two passionless presidencies. And I certainly don't mean to imply that Fallows would sign on to Gabler's view of Obama. Finally, I don't mean to suggest that Carter and Obama are alike in all the particulars. But there is something disturbingly similar about the demeanor and manner of the two presidents: the "I'm the smartest person in the room" affect; and the sense that policymaking is a matter of getting the technical matters right, after which, other political actors, seeing the obvious merits of the positions, will fall in line.
There are differences, of course. Unlike Carter, Obama had the sense to hire a chief of staff with intimate knowledge of Washington's (especially Congress's) inner workings. And the president himself is not, as Carter was, a total stranger to the Washington political culture. And so far there is no evidence that Obama, though having his hands in lots of pots as Carter did, similarly wastes his time with micromanagement and with devoting his attention to trivial matters.
But almost a full year into his presidency, Obama's performance in office raises disturbing questions about whether his, too, will ultimately be deemed a passionless presidency, with all the failings that entails.