Matt Lewis

On ‘playing it cool’: Obama’s strategy of insouciance?

The other day I wrote about President Obama’s horrible optics. My point was that, by not looking terribly concerned about the economic crisis — or the chaos in the Middle East — the president risked appearing aloof and out of touch. After all, if you’re an out-of-work fellow in the Rust Belt, seeing Obama attend fundraisers, golf, and go on “The View,” might not sit well.

And so, I struggled to figure out why Obama was adopting this seemingly risky strategy — and why his negligence hadn’t seemed to cost him politically.

But I’m starting to figure it out.

Obama is trying to convince us, via his words, actions, and even body language, that there’s nothing to worry about. After all, if he’s not worried, why should we be?

It’s sort of a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” presidency.

Others are noticing it, too. In today’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer alludes to it:

In mid-September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the bottom fell out of the financial system. Barack Obama handled it coolly. John McCain did not. Obama won the presidency. (Given the country’s condition, he would have won anyway. But this sealed it.)

Four years later, mid-September 2012, the U.S. mission in Benghazi went up in flames, as did Obama’s entire Middle East policy of apology and accommodation. Obama once again played it cool, effectively ignoring the attack and the region-wide American humiliation.“Bumps in the road,” he said…

(Note: A big caveat — A Republican could not get away with downplaying a crisis to this degree. It would seem discordant. The media wouldn’t play along, and a Republican president couldn’t count on intellectually honest conservative commentators to keep their mouths shut, either.) So the rules aren’t fair. We know that. But having said that, Obama’s strategy — for now, at least — seems to be working.

And it turns out that I might have been wrong in arguing that Obama was attempting to defy the lessons of history. During a conversation yesterday on Bloggingheads.TV, my liberal sparring partner Bill Scher pointed out that Jimmy Carter probably erred by appearing to care too much about the Iranian hostage situation.

As Scher argued:

Carter handled the Iran hostage crisis and employed kind of a Rose Garden strategy, where he [said]: ‘I’m not going to leave the White House, I’m going to stay on the job. I’m going to deal with this very difficult situation’ — which all sounds very noble — sounds like the proper statesmanly thing to do.

But it actually made him look more ineffectual, because he didn’t have magic wants that could resolve that crisis.

Bill is correct in noting that, by seeming to really care about a situation he couldn’t control, Carter looked even more impotent. Still, it’s impossible to know if Carter would have fared better by appearing cooler and less worried.

I’m not convinced that appearing on the “Tonight Show,” rather than being holed up in the White House, would have helped Carter. It very well might have made him look more feckless.

What is more, I’m still not convinced that Obama’s strategy won’t eventually (more likely in a second term) come back to haunt him.

Regardless, I am comforted by knowing their is some method to the madness.