Being There

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 14 2012 @ 2:18pm


Michael Lewis's Obama article is now online and worth reading in full. Michael is our greatest nonfiction writer right now, and he is able to capture the full dimensions of what being POTUS means – by telling two stories, of a soldier dropped into the Libyan night and a commander-in-chief of almost preternatural calm thousands of miles away.

I remain of the view – it has strengthened over these past four years – that while Barack Obama is obviously fallible, has made mistakes (blowing off Bowles-Simpson too soon), gaffes ("you didn't build that"), and one critical miscalculation in the debt ceiling end-game (asking for more revenue just as Boehner was being cut off at the knees by Ryan and Cantor), he is also one of the coolest temperaments to have sat in that chair. What people don't note enough is both the self-discipline (that we know doesn't come easily) and the zen-like calm he exudes. Occasionally I ask some sources close to him how he reacted to some piece of news or the other. They almost all say that his range of emotion is about a tenth of the average human being – and that he is as intent on being a good father and husband as being a good president. He is cool not in the pop culture sense, but in the "old soul" sense. This is why so many wavering Americans still like him. In an ocean of drama, he is an island of public calm.

I have very little of that temperament. I'm not good in crises. But when I think of the characteristics I want in a president in turbulent times, this capacity for calm and poise comes pretty high on the list. And that's why I think this past week was almost as damaging to Romney as the week before. He over-reacted in a petty, political way to a sudden, murky series of events that demanded restraint and calm and fact-gathering. Then he doubled down on his attempt to politicize it. This was talk-radio performance, not presidential behavior. 

Then there's just practical wisdom. Again, the right's attempt to equate Obama with Jimmy Carter – because it's their iconic moment of electoral triumph – could not be further off-base. Obama is not micro-managing the White House tennis courts. Michael (full disclosure: old friend, former colleague) asked the president to "Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president." Part of Obama's response:

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

I actually prefer presidents who do not seek constant exposure and remember the banal loveliness of ordinary, relatively anonymous life, and are eager one day to get back to it. That was Reagan and the Bushes. It wasn't Clinton or McCain. It is Obama – the sanest conservative president since Eisenhower.

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty.)