The Real Obama

November 19, 2012

There's always been a noticeable difference between President Obama in campaign settings and in his official capacity.

In election-mode, he is high energy, gives a great political speech, and throws around catch-phrases with ease and style ("Yes we can!," "Fired up and ready to go!," "Romnesia"). But in the White House, he often seems to be the opposite -- a little too serious, even boring, and reluctant to be too political. I'm exaggerating somewhat, he's hardly non-political as President, but the difference in tone is clear to me.

Watching him on the 2008 campaign, when most people were introduced to him, left you with the impression that he's a natural politician. But I think it is closer to the truth to say he's naturally good at campaigning, but that his real self is more reserved and serious. He uses his talent at politics to get the opportunity to work on things he sees as more important and more valuable.

I think that was apparent in his first post-election news conference. With no election in his future, he shed a degree of political posturing. He didn't need to compromise, or make nice with those he doesn't like, or engage in the puppet theater of saying the right thing for political reasons. His words, of course, were not without calculation, but he seemed like a President trying to get things done, not a politician trying to please people.

Bill Clinton is the same mix of political talent and intellectual seriousness, but I think his true self leans more towards politics. When the necessary glad-handing was over, Clinton stayed at the party. And then afterward he called his friends to talk more. My guess is that Obama does what's necessary to win the room and then retreats somewhere to read. Again, I'm exaggerating the difference, but I think it is real.

Obama's Presidency has always leaned toward the serious, but I expect that to become even more true in the years ahead. More than most second term presidents, his eye seems to be on history, and a desire to leave the White House having made a substantial impact. He has enormous power and, freed from the need to placate every interest group and respond to every back-bench attack, he intends to use it fully to achieve his goals.

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