As Tough As He Needs to Be

Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics
Barack Obama playfully confronts John McCain on the Senate floor, 2006

Barack Obama playfully confronts John McCain on the Senate floor, 2006

David Brooks finally brought himself to write a mostly admiring column about Barack Obama today. But the kind words led to a rather unkind conclusion — that Obama’s vaunted cool might ill-serve him as president:

Of course, it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which he is not an island of rationality in a sea of tumult, but simply an island. New presidents are often amazed by how much they are disobeyed, by how often passive-aggressiveness frustrates their plans.

It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.

I just don’t see this. I have been arguing with people about Obama’s toughness for a very long time, and what I keep seeing from him is that he is as tough and confrontational as he feels is necessary, and doesn’t go beyond that.

He’s perfectly willing to be confrontational when he feels that confrontation is warranted, though. (Or to paraphrase one of his first famous lines, he’s not against all fights, just dumb fights…)

The photo above is from a confrontation Obama had with McCain in 2006. They were sitting on an ethics committee together and a “poison pen” episode led to tension and acrimony. (Basically, McCain erupted at Obama for no good reason.) The Washington Post reported the denouement:

Obama and McCain part deux

Obama and McCain part deux

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama appeared to make up yesterday after their unusual public poison-pen exchange (McCain accusing Obama of “partisan posturing” and “disingenuousness”; Obama expressing hurt that McCain “questioned my sincerity”) over lobbying reform.

As Obama entered the crowded Senate Rules Committee hearing room, he playfully brandished a fist while putting an arm around the seated McCain. Awwwwww! Many pictures were snapped. “I value his input,” McCain told the panel. Said Obama: “I’m particularly pleased to be sharing this panel with my pen pal John McCain.”

More recently, after Joe Lieberman went on a particularly strident run of campaigning for McCain, including (immediately before this encounter) participating in a McCain campaign conference call eviscerating Obama’s performance at AIPAC, Obama approached him on the Senate floor:

Roll Call reports that during a Senate vote today, Sen. Barack Obama “dragged” Sen. Joe Lieberman “by the hand to a far corner of the Senate chamber and engaged in what appeared to reporters in the gallery as an intense, three-minute conversation.”

“While it was unclear what the two were discussing, the body language suggested that Obama was trying to convince Lieberman of something and his stance appeared slightly intimidating.”

“Using forceful, but not angry, hand gestures, Obama literally backed up Lieberman against the wall, leaned in very close at times, and appeared to be trying to dominate the conversation, as the two talked over each other in a few instances.”

Again, though, the episode ended on a positive note:

“Still, Obama and Lieberman seemed to be trying to keep the back-and-forth congenial as they both patted each other on the back during and after the exchange. Afterwards, Obama smiled and pointed up at reporters peering over the edge of the press gallery for a better glimpse of their interaction.”

Partial video here.
So what was discussed? Jake Tapper reported:

Democratic sources tell ABC News that the conversation was a stern rebuke to Lieberman for his criticism of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as had just happened on the conference call, as well as a discussion about how far Lieberman is willing to go in his advocacy of McCain, and the tone of the campaign.

“It’s one thing to support McCain,” said one Democratic source, “but many think Uncle Joe has gone too far.”

(This happened in June of this year — I don’t recall Uncle Joe being nearly as strident since then.)

Barack Obama is not a person who shrinks from confrontation. But one of the hurdles that he’s had to clear in becoming a viable presidential candidate is avoiding the Angry Black Man label. He therefore has been extra careful, and I think that is wise. As Andrew Sullivan said about the first debate:

So [Obama] must also be very careful not to get angry and to stay cool and calm. He has to do that to avoid the “angry black man” trap. But then he cannot afford to seem weak either. You realize how hard a balance that is for ninety minutes?

Or for a whole campaign?

However, this trap will not loom as large if Obama makes it to the White House. This means that I think a President Obama would display even more toughness than Candidate Obama. Not dumb, empty toughness, not the “Mission Accomplished” posturing we’ve become used to. But toughness when necessary? Yes.

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