Richard Reeves

Why Is Obama So Popular?

LOS ANGELES -- The New York Times and CBS News headlined and broadcast last week that their polling indicated Americans have more confidence in President Obama than they do in his programs -- especially when it comes to health care and the federal budget.

I don't find that surprising, and if I worked in the White House I might even think it was pretty good news. No one from Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue knows exactly what to do about the wheelbarrow loads of problems being dumped on the doorstep of the White House these days. What those numbers mean to me is most people most of the time still think Barack Obama is the right guy to try to figure out what to do about those problems.

He seems to many to be, temperamentally, the same man The Washington Post described in an endorsement editorial last year:

"Any presidential vote is a gamble, and Mr. Obama's resume is undoubtedly thin. ... But Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment."

The word "temperament" is permanently and iconically attached to the presidency because of a meeting on March 8, 1933, between Franklin D. Roosevelt and a retired justice of the Supreme Court, the formidable and brilliant Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was the fifth day of FDR's presidency and Holmes' 92nd birthday. With his wife, Eleanor, Roosevelt decided to stop by, unannounced, at Holmes' Georgetown house. He knew Holmes did not think much of him, but after a few drinks, the two men were charmed by each other. Holmes later famously described FDR as having "a second-class mind, but a first-class temperament."

Ignoring revisionists who say the old man was really talking about Theodore Roosevelt, the president who had appointed him to the court, Holmes, as usual, was on to something -- so was The Washington Post. I doubt I'm the only American who is astounded each day by how Obama is handling the most important job in the world. Using the word in its old sense, is the man really that cool? Is he that imperturbable, or is it an act? Even if it isn't totally genuine, the style works, just as it did for Roosevelt -- Franklin that is. The nation obviously needs the calm, confidence, hope and optimism Obama is projecting as he zips around the country and its issues.

Checking the word "temperament," Merriam Webster traces it to the Latin "temperamentum," from "temperare" to mix or to temper. FDR tempered the fear of the Great Depression; Obama is trying to temper the panic of our day. The details don't matter if Americans remain calm and optimistic.

In other words, like FDR, Obama instinctively understands that in leading hundreds of millions of free people, words are more important than deeds. (President Ronald Reagan also understood this.)

That man in the White House now is a master of words. Here's an example:

Obama is being attacked and criticized now for being too temperate in analyzing the events in Iran, in not taking the side of the opposition to the tyranny of the minority in that country. But presumably he knows the dangers of using the wrong words at the wrong time. President Dwight Eisenhower, a man careful with words, and his men tried verbal aggression in the 1950s, helping to provoke rebellion in Eastern Europe by giving the impression the great Americans would come charging to the rescue of all good men everywhere, say in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Anti-communists took to the streets in those countries and we stood by, suddenly silent, as the Russians rolled over them in tanks.

It is interesting to note that the Campaign Mapping Project, run by Roderick Hart at the University of Texas, which has studied the language use of presidential candidates since 1948, rates the erudite Obama not as the most complex speaker since then but as the least complex. That index rates average word size, and Obama the profound uses shorter words, fewer syllables and fewer adverbs and adjectives than any president or candidate in more than 60 years.

People like that, as Abraham Lincoln used to say in plain words. And that's probably why they like Obama whether or not they agree with him all the time.

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