The Iceman Leadeth
The cool diplomacy of Barack Obama.
After British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visits Washington this week for consultations at the White House, and U.S. President Barack Obama ultimately leave office, it is unlikely you’ll find the two of them vacationing together. While the Tory PM and his American counterpart have developed a comfortable working relationship that is actually somewhat warmer than many had predicted given the political distance between the two, these guys aren’t pals. But Cameron shouldn’t dwell on it. Obama doesn’t have a lot of pals among the members of the world’s leadership club.
Obama doesn’t dream up clever nicknames for his international buddies, as George W. Bush did. The PM will never be "the Cameronator" or "Mr. Horses and Hounds" in this White House. Nor should he expect the kind of late-night phone calls from Bubba that were a hallmark of the Bill Clinton era and made the Clinton-Blair relationship such a close partnership. And the kind of soul-mate, connected-at-the-heart-by-a-Laffer-curve, mind-meld of the Reagan-Thatcher years is out of the question.
At issue is whether Obama’s cool is an impediment — or an asset. Although he is, to use a term favored by my daughters’ kindergarten teachers, "slow to warm," he is also famously even-keeled in the face of pressure or difficult circumstances. He hasn’t much liked the lecturing and condescension of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he manages his emotions well and, I’m told, it is only after the pedantic, arrogant Israeli prime minister leaves the room that Obama feels free to express his emotions to some of his very small circle of close colleagues. ("No drama" caricatures aside, Obama has certainly shown his inner circle that behind the scenes he is frequently capable of losing his temper and, more frequently, of sharply communicating his displeasure with staffers who frustrate him with lack of preparation or an inclination to try to draw him into their petty agency politics.)
Interestingly, it looks like the Republican Party is going to present him with an opponent who is just as chill. As one senior Democratic Party observer put it, "2012 could be the year of the icebox vs. the refrigerator." Mitt Romney is no hot-blooded back-slapper either. According to an article in this past Saturday’s New York Times, Romney had chilly relations with the Massachusetts legislature that parallel those of Obama with Capitol Hill. Neither man has particularly warm relations even with the leaders of his own party.
Obama, of course, has one strength that has thus far eluded Romney. He can turn on the heat and stir up the passion with crowds. In this he is like a lot of great actors, somewhat remote in their personal lives but capable of incandescence on the stage or screen. The contrast between the rock star Obama of the 2008 campaign and the cooler, behind-the-scenes real man was a bit confusing to global leaders during the first two years of the administration. Although clearly a brilliant guy and always very well briefed, he was difficult to connect with, some complained, and in some cases, so businesslike that he seemed brusque, leading to concerns about what this entailed for U.S. relations. From Cameron to Germany’s Angela Merkel to Latin American leaders who interacted with him at the first Summit of the Americas he attended, there were doubts and even unhappiness. One now out-of-office Latin American head of state lamented the loss of the easy connection he had with Bush. When Time‘s Fareed Zakaria recently asked Obama about his closest international relationships, the example he offered of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to many observers to be a reach, further proof of Obama’s remoteness. And most recently, here at Foreign Policy, GOP gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie suggested that the president’s "cold and aloof" character made Obama vulnerable to Republican attacks, charging that his lack of closeness with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki had somehow undercut U.S. relationships with those countries (neglecting to consider whether in fact it was Karzai’s corruption and obduracy and Maliki’s drift toward strongman status and, for that matter, Iran that might have posed bigger problems for these relationships).
But gradually, people have come to see Obama more for his actions than his sometimes too-businesslike demeanor. He has shown courage in his decisions to go after Osama bin Laden and Muammar al-Qaddafi. He has shown tenacity in his pursuit of a negotiated solution in Iran and his patience with the slow progress in Libya. He has shown vision in his pivot from the Middle East to Asia. He has shown flexibility in his ability to reassess policies from Iraq to Afghanistan to global financial markets. He has shown a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved, whether during climate talks or tough discussions with the Israelis. What’s more, gradually, he has built constructive working relationships founded on a clear sense of professionalism and candor, be it with Cameron, Sarkozy, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, or, in fact, Erdogan.
Furthermore, the president has done what many wise leaders do and surrounded himself with top officials who complement his strengths — deepening relationships, working them behind the scenes, offering warmth and an attentive ear where he can’t or doesn’t have the time to do so. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has masterfully and tirelessly shouldered much of the burden in this regard, but so too have Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the administration’s two secretaries of defense, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. Collectively and quietly, they have changed the character of America’s relationships with the world. The warmth Bush showed for his friends was always undercut by the alienation produced by his us-or-them policy stances (though it must be acknowledged that Gates, together with Condi Rice and Steve Hadley, made valiant and increasingly effective efforts to undo the damage of Bush’s first term). What Obama has done is not just restored America’s reputation with the tenor of his rhetoric and the substance of his speeches, but he has also turned his seeming aloofness into an American strength.
We’ve seen it before: For every Bill Clinton or Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has also had effective and even great presidents of considerable reserve, starting with the country’s first one. Indeed, drawing on the sang-froid Obama has shown in approving covert, high-risk missions like the one that took out bin Laden, it is increasingly possible to see his remoteness as many of his top military leaders have, not so much as a defect or quirk but rather as the kind of calm, self-possessed "right stuff" of a Chuck Yeager. The reality is that the United States doesn’t need a back-slapping president who is chums with other heads of state. In fact, in a world buffeted by crises and fraught with complexity, having a top guy who is unflappable and effective seems to be working considerably better than Americans’ recent experience with having one who is a jovial, likeable frat boy oblivious to the havoc he wrought wherever his deeply held convictions took him.