Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barack Obama and the Chill Factor

Is he inscrutable or enigmatic? Does he show boundless narcissism or preternatural cool? Does his frozen smile mean that he is hiding behind a mask or is he merely exuding an aura of imperious confidence?

What is it about Barack Obama's facial expression that has so thoroughly fascinated and mystified commentators?

On the one side, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times, Obama seems completely relaxed, completely chill. Apparently this is supposed to give the impression of being in control.

On the other side, he has declared war on Fox News, the insurance industry, and Wall Street. His representatives have been anything but chill in their frenzied attacks on these industries and institutions.

Perhaps it is not as strange as it seems. I would suggest that it is merely the facial expression of someone who comes to the presidency with an extreme experience deficit. Anyone who lacks executive and legislative experience would feel lost and befuddled upon taking the reins of the American government.

If you do not have enough real experience to understand how to run the government, the least you can do is put on a face that bespeaks leadership. Calm, cool, confident... these are words that are used to describe great leaders. Obama, quite simply, seems to be playing a role. Given his inexperience, it might be the best he can do.

But when reality escapes you, you are most likely to live in fantasy and myth. Obama inhabits a myth that appears to be something like class struggle, the rich exploiting the poor. In his mythical world the rich get rich at the expense of the poor. Then, a great leader comes along, a Robin Hood, who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. It is simply a rescue fantasy.

If it does not produce more jobs, at least it will produce something like a fictional version of justice.

These thoughts came to me as I was reading Lucy Kellaway's column about her efforts to motivate her twelve year old son to work harder in his new school. Link here.

When she asked the lad how he liked his school, he responded that he did not find it sufficiently chill. To Kellaway being chill means being vegetative, so she was dismayed to receive this reply.

Being chill seems to denote being laid back, almost as though you are in a drug-induced trance, to the point that you are not affected by anything that is going on around you.

Kellaway is worried that her son's bad habit of being chill will eventually compromise his success. In her words: "... even though to be chilled might be very zen, it does not lead to success. To succeed in corporate life-- or any competitive field-- one must be driven obsessive, hard-working." Success comes to those who are anything but chill.

Very useful points, I would say, echoed by Tom Friedman in his column today. Link here.

But then, almost as an afterthought, Kellaway lights on the reason why young people are trying to be chill. They are emulating Barack Obama.

In fact, Kellaway gives Obama the benefit of the doubt. She says that he only appears to be chill; he is really very driven. Still, he is setting a bad example: "He has pulled off the ultimate trick: to be driven and look relaxed. He is a dangerous example to the young. When they see Obama on the TV they should be told: don't try this at home. Learn your Latin vocab."

American presidents are role models, even in Kellaway's home base of Great Britain. Unfortunately, she is rather too optimistic if she believes that a mother's words, or anyone's words, will stop young people from emulating the most popular and successful person on the planet.

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