Obama, Boehner: Two kinds of cool

The two most powerful men in Washington have one similarity: cool heads.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are, in this respect, outliers in today’s hyper-partisan political climate. 

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They prefer to get business done with a minimum of fuss, in an era when others seem to prefer, to misquote Elvis Presley, a little more conversation and a little less action.

The question, as the debt crisis begins to fade from the headlines, is whether their calmness is always a virtue. 

For Obama, in particular, his lack of demonstrativeness has left him open to the charge of being aloof or disengaged. 

Boehner, after some shaky moments, has emerged from the debt talks with his reputation burnished. But there is still a question over whether his affable, “country-club Republican” persona is the best reflection of today’s often proudly aggressive House GOP conference.

Obama’s famously untempestuous nature has been apparent for some time. 


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His methodical response to the near-cataclysm that enveloped the financial system in September of 2008 might well have been a pivotal moment in that year’s presidential election. 

As his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), called a temporary halt to his campaign and returned to Washington, only to be seen as lacking in ideas once he got there, Obama’s more even-tempered response put to rest some of the concerns about his lack of experience and relative youth.

More recently, Obama won plaudits not merely for finally having Osama bin Laden killed, but also for the manner of the operation.

Instead of a drone strike that would have carried much lower risk for American forces, Obama made the call to send in a team of Navy SEALs, reasoning in part that he needed to be absolutely sure that the United States had gotten its man. Vice President Biden has declared that choice “the boldest decision any president has undertaken on a single event in modern history.”

Even if that judgment seems a bit hyperbolic to some, Obama’s aides often seek to make a virtue of his calmness. In June, David Axelrod told CNN’s Candy Crowley that in his time working at the White House, he had seen the president handle tough decisions with “a lot of intelligence and grace; equilibrium.”

But there has always been a counter-narrative: one that suggests Obama is a little too calm for his own good, too keen to play peacemaker and not aggressive enough in pushing for Democratic goals.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane acknowledges that he can “understand” why some liberal activists get upset. But, he adds, “to me, President Obama is like the Muhammad Ali of politicians; he is a fantastic counter-puncher. He waits for the opening and then takes it, [although] that sometimes means he doesn’t get the credit he deserves.” 

Presidential historian Fred Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton, praises both Boehner and Obama as “political pros” who “see themselves more as problem-solvers and less as the kind to go jumping off cliffs or turning purple.”

But even Greenstein notes that Obama can sometimes come across as curiously passive.

The president, Greenstein said, sometimes “wants to stay above the fray. He’s not like that when he’s out there campaigning, but then [afterward] he does a kind of reverse-Superman act and steps out of the phone booth as a policy nerd.”

Of course, even that wry verdict is generous compared to the way in which Obama is viewed by many Republicans.

“People are getting tired of his habit of wanting to step in at a certain moment and act at being King Solomon,” said Republican strategist Curt Anderson. “Things are not going well in the country, and so the idea of ‘I’m a bystander’ is not what people want.”

Obama’s approach, however, may well find more than a little resonance with Boehner.

Last year, when his ascension to the Speakership was still uncertain, Boehner told The Hill: “I don’t yell. I don’t do anger. I’m not dictatorial. I’m not a screamer.”

On Monday night, pressed by Diane Sawyer of ABC on the pressures inherent in the debt negotiations, Boehner insisted, “I don’t do stress.”

Such comments might well be a sincere reflection of Boehner’s personality. But, some observers say, they also highlight a prudent way of conducting business.

“The days of earmarks are over. He has very little at his disposal in order to enforce discipline,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Instead of horse-trading, it is a matter of trust.”

Lehane, the Democratic strategist, agreed. “Now, when the Speaker has less leverage, it is probably the right approach,” he admits. “It’s not like we are in the time of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the Senate or even Tip O’Neill in the House, where you could lead through threats.” 

Sometimes the comity between Boehner and Obama seems forced, as at their much-publicized golf game in June. Other times, as when the debt-deal negotiations were at their nadir and Boehner did not return Obama’s phone calls, it seems nonexistent.

But, whether or not each man’s partisans are always satisfied by his performance, the fact remains that both got a deal done on the debt-ceiling. It was an achievement that carried considerable risks along the way. Had they tried and failed or not tried at all, many people believe the consequences for the country would likely have been many times worse.

So, in that sense at least, Obama and Boehner alike racked up a victory.

“Together,” said Fred Greenstein, “they served almost as a fuse to prevent the system from melting down.”