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Is Obama Too Cerebral?

There seems to be something about the month of August that makes people ask the question “Where's Obama's Passion?” On August 21, 2008, Joe Klein in Time wrote an article with that question as a title. Exactly a year later, Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post regarding the debate on health care that “there's not enough passion on the Democratic side, not enough heat. . . not nearly enough coming from President Obama.” And a week after Robinson’s article former presidential adviser and television journalist Bill Moyers, appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher, made essentially the same charge. He regretted that in dealing with health care, Obama was not displaying the passion of someone like Theodore Roosevelt, who “loved to fight."

He came into office and railed against the malefactors of great wealth, he was glad to take them on, take on the barons and the tycoons and people responded to it. I think if Obama fought instead of finessed so much, if he stood up and declared for what is really the right thing to do and what is really needed instead of negotiating the corners away, instead of talking about bending the curve and talking about actuarial rates, if he would stand up and say: "We need this because we're a decent country" I think it would change the atmosphere. . . . He [Obama] didn't speak in simple, powerful, moral, language. He was speaking like a policy wonk.

Charging Obama with displaying too little passion opens up a question asked by the great German sociologist Max Weber almost a century ago in his essay “Politics as a Vocation”: “How can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?” Weber went on to say that “politics is made with the head, not with other parts of the body or soul. And yet devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.” Clarifying his thinking further, he went on to say that the politician’s passion had to be in the interest of noble causes, and guided by a “feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion” that “lets realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness.” Thus, passion had to be combined with objectivity and a certain degree of detachment, especially from one’s ego. Weber believed that vanity often led to the “two kinds of deadly sins” of a politician--lack of objectivity and irresponsibility.

What Weber seemed to be calling for was a political wisdom that included passion as a central ingredient. In other essays I have explored Obama’s appreciation of wisdom and dealt with the political wisdom of individuals such as Russia’s Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov, but the relationship of passion with such wisdom traits as patience, persistence, and objectivity needs to be explored further.  The French philosopher and dramatist Gabriel Marcel once observed that “a wisdom which does not include passion . . . is not worthy of being called wisdom.” But Marcel did not address the difficult question that Weber asked about how a politician best combines “warm passion and a cool sense of proportion.” 

Obama has amply demonstrated that he values many wisdom qualities. In making policy decisions, he tries to approach them in an objective, rational manner, encouraging the airing of as many different views as possible. In his book The Audacity of Hope (2006) he mentions words like wisdom and responsibility often. And he understands that politics is the art of the possible, which leads him at times to make the types of compromises that are sometimes necessary in politics, but also to his being accused of finessing or compromising too much. In the same book, “passion” is less often mentioned, sometimes favorably and sometimes less favorably as when he mentioned the Iraq war “as a war based not on reason but passion.”

For a political leader, displaying and harnessing passion wisely is more difficult than for a charismatic dissident like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber suggested some of the differences and relations between charismatic leadership and other types of political authority including political bureaucracy, and his words are still worth reading today. Some dissidents like Nelson Mandela have later assumed a government position--he became president of South Africa in 1994.  As president, Mandela made compromises that some of his former radical supporters thought were too compromising, and some believed that he had seemed to have lost some of his old passion against injustices. Others, however, thought that he maintained his ideals and passionate concerns, but that the office of president required less display of passion than was necessary for a dissident. 

 At least since John Kennedy, “coolness” has been admired in presidents, some said because television favored coolness over the old-fashioned “hot” rhetoric of politicians like former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. But Moyers, who worked for Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, recognized that both Kennedy and Obama sometimes gave inspiring speeches that stirred people’s healthy passions for good causes. Moyers told Bill Maher: “I looked at the video of Grant Park on the election night last year, Bill, and the faces of those young people, the gleam in their eyes, the hope in their faces, the determination, the belief in the idealist was like that of 1960.” He added that “great presidents have the power to move people with words, and then by making the choices that back up those words, and that's the big challenge for Barack Obama now, is to back up that powerful, moving, inspiring rhetoric with strong decisions.” 

Whether in regard to health care reform or other policy initiatives in the future Obama will be able to match his sometimes inspiring rhetoric with"strong decisions" remains unknown. Late that same month when Robinson and Moyers were criticizing Obama for not displaying enough passion, a U. S. senator died who was known for such a quality and who declared that the “whole issue of health insurance and universal coverage . . . . has been the passion of my life.” But he was also admired by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for his ability to help forge compromises leading to legislation. The person, of course, was Ted Kennedy.  Upon his death Obama issued a statement that said, “I valued his wise counsel in the Senate . . . . I’ve profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom.” Later in the day, the president added that the senator “could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines.” If the cool and cerebral Obama is to bring about meaningful health care reform, he may need to demonstrate a wisdom that includes a healthy dose of Ted-Kennedy-like passion.