Playing It Small

President Obama is an extremely bright guy. He does a lot well. Deeply analytical. Strategically intelligent. Unfailingly patient. And yet in the midst of what could be a defining moment for American politics Obama his conspicuously quiet. For all we know he could be playing the game perfectly, but he’s playing it small.

Now any Obama apologist could make any number of caveats for Obama here about the futility of the partisan political culture in Washington, the diminished prestige of the office of President of The United States of America, the larger forces of global finance that have redefined the once proud role of Head-of-State as just another middling cog in the “government” department of the machine that is our international banks…

Many of these excuses would sound convincing and on point. But the fact remains that they are excuses. Every great president has faced ugly conditions and transcended them not by the details of policy but by the force of his personality.

Remember this guy?
(Video of the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner)

I think this was the last time we saw Obama show some of the personality that got him elected in office. And this was at a private event only broadcast by CSPAN. As president he’s always a little too controlled. A little too polite. Always playing the long game. And, frustratingly for those of us who are rooting for him to make this country a better place, playing it small.

In doing so it seems to the casual observer like Obama has let the opposition define his presidency. Times are tough. Obama faces some significant challenges to implementing the change he promised when campaigning in 2007. But by always giving credit to his opposition and always playing it smart, strategic, and small, Obama is shortchanging himself as a leader and the American people he serves. An adviser to the president should employ the always-careful discipline that Obama exemplifies. But a president must occasionally transcend mere politics in order to lead.

There is no book in the Harvard library that can tell him how to do it. Transcendence is something Mr. Obama will have to learn on the job, in America’s darkest moments, or he won’t get another four years to learn it.


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