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Obama's "Cool" Problem

This column was written by Michelle Cottle.

In a way arguably unlike any previous presidential contender (yes, okay, fine: JFK, maybe), Barack Obama personifies cool. He's young. He's hip. (Check out that iPod playlist.) He's black. He's got that whole smooth-talking, fist-bumping, "What, me worry?" vibe going. His oratory uplifts without inflaming. He talks of hope and change and endless possibility, but always with an edge of restraint and composure that soothes even as it inspires. The "No Drama Obama" label suits him. Long, lean, and always perfectly turned out, the man looks as though he could withstand a nuclear staredown without breaking a sweat.

All of which strikes me as a bit of a problem at this point. While the cool, composed, no-drama demeanor helps Obama appear presidential--and no doubt allays some subliminal white racial anxieties--it also threatens to make him look a bit detached from the many and multiplying crises around him. These are not, to put it mildly, the most soothing of times for Americans. The economy is shaky. Unemployment is up. Growth is down. Oil prices have hit the roof just as home prices have crashed through the floor. Detroit is facing a full-fledged meltdown. We are still embroiled in two wars, neither of which offers much hope for a happy ending. Al Qaeda is running wild in western Pakistan. And now, like some bad acid flashback, Russia is acting like it wants to restart the Cold War.

Confronted by these dramas, Obama offers thoughtful, balanced, pragmatic responses. He does not promote quick-fix schemes to make it look as though he is a man of action, pounding his chest and vowing to Drill Now! or to declare a tax holiday to ease our gas pains. (Hell, even John McCain admits that more off-shore drilling would provide nothing more than a "psychological" balm for years to come.) When Russia invaded Georgia, his initial statement counseled restraint on the part of both parties. As it became clearer that Russia was up to no good, Obama's denunciations grew more pointed. But in this, as in most matters, he did not act or speak with a great deal of emotion. He stayed, if you will, cool.

Whether discussing health care or energy or foreign threats, what Obama almost invariably fails to convey is a sense of urgency. Yes, he seems sincere enough--earnest even. But all that equanimity can make you wonder if perhaps he quite gets it. Certainly, the average American is feeling like his or her issues could use some urgent attention. Gas prices need to come down now. The housing market needs to stabilize now. The international chaos bubbling up around us needs to be dealt with now. Something needs to be done about health care, and global warming, and illegal immigration, and the fact that every time you turn around it seems like another factory has closed and another 3,000 manufacturing jobs have been shipped to Jakarta. Now.

At the other end of the spectrum, John McCain positively vibrates whenever he speaks. The guy is old, but he is feisty--at times to a fault. (One does not earn the moniker "The White Tornado" by being low-key.) He blusters, he panders, he flies off the handle. He has a reputation for acting on emotion rather than reason. Looked at dispassionately, this is exactly the type of leader that should make the voting public anxious. But the voting public is already anxious. And under such circumstances, McCain's constant flappability may come across as downright comforting.

This is not to argue that Obama should try to alter his basic nature or pretend to care deeply about issues that are not important to him. And, of course, most problems do not have an immediate solution. But he does need to recognize that unrelenting cool may not be what voters are longing for this election. Make no mistake: Obama is not some spiritless wonk burying us in figures but unable to fit them into a compelling narrative (the usual Democratic pitfall). It's just that his delivery of the narrative is a bit even-keeled and high-toned for a nervous nation. Bill Clinton made a career not out of simply feeling voters pain, but out of showing them he was feeling it. Obama needs to find a way to do something similar. Fast. For all its attractions, cool has its limitations.

By Michelle Cottle
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