Cool Kids Versus Squares, Continued

Yesterday, I wrote a post looking at an ad aired by GOP uber-super-PAC American Crossroads that went after Barack Obama for being a "celebrity" and doing things like going on Jimmy Fallon's television show. I argued that it looked like once again we are in for a renewal of the old battles that started in the 1960s between the squares and the cool kids (or, depending on the historical moment, the jocks and the hippies). In the course of my post, I talked about Barack Obama's image of "cool," which he certainly works to cultivate. I'm hardly the first person to note this about Obama, and I didn't actually say anything about whether coolness makes one a good president. Nevertheless, Matt Welch at Reason seemed positively outraged, enough to illustrate his post responding to mine with a giant picture of me (great!) and accuse me of arguing something I didn't actually argue (not so great). Here's what he had to say (it begins with a reference to the "pound hug," that combo handshake-hug thing):

While I am always tickled to learn a new phrase, a presidential pound hug can go pound sand: What matters is how you govern. It will surprise approximately no one that Paul Waldman was much more critical of the gap between presidential image and performance back when it wasn't his team in the White House. Now, though, with a heavy sigh, this Joe Cool of opinion journalism is being dragged reluctantly back into the political quad...

Then he goes on to quote me, and quotes Glenn Reynolds, equally outraged by all appearances, saying that there's nothing cool about Obama's ramping up of the war on marijuana, opposition to gay marriage, and so on. But here's what they seem to be missing.

You see, there's a difference between "cool" as an idea and a demeanor, and "cool" as a sixth-grader might use the term, meaning just "awesome!" Matt apparently thought I was using it in the latter sense, which probably accounts for him referring to my post as "Obama-fluffing," but this is something I've written about before. For instance, it's what makes Obama hard to parody, and is the reason there are no good comedic impressions of him the way there were of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It's not because Obama is awesome, it's because coolness dictates that you remain calm and a little removed at all times, which means that you don't have the kind of outsized traits and habits that can be exaggerated into comedy. Obama doesn't get goofy like Bush sometimes did, and he won't get on his knees and weep with you like Bill Clinton would. There's no value judgment there; it's just who he is.

And as for Matt's contention that I'm not critical of the gap between presidential image and performance because my team isn't in the White House, I'd say two things. First, never once did I say that Obama's "cool" demeanor makes him a good president, nor would I (for the record, on the whole I think his performance is mixed). When it came to George W. Bush (that link takes you to an interview I did years ago about him), I was most critical of his image-making when it was in the service of deceit, as it was so often. (As a side note, Bush's greatest deceptions came when he was trying to convince the public to go along with something he was about to do, not to convince them that he had been doing a good job already).

And second, what brought this whole thing up was an attempt at public persuasion by Republicans. Obviously, Obama goes on Jimmy Fallon's show because he's trying to convince young people that he's still sympatico with them and they should get out and work for him like they did four years ago. But it was Rove's group that produced the ad stringing together clips of Obama with celebrities and wearing sunglasses. They're the ones with the greatest eagerness to stir up the culture war. If anybody's arguing that Obama is cool, it's them; it's just that they want voters to think that's a reason to vote against him, whereas I'd argue that it isn't a good reason to vote either way.

I'm still sorting out what kind of a president I think Mitt Romney would be—it's an extremely difficult question to answer, because he has some genuine gifts and also has some spectacular weaknesses, even aside from the ideological differences I have with him. But the fact that he's about as square as they come won't have any effect on whether he can pass legislation or how he'd deal with an international crisis. It will, however, affect how Americans think about him. Which may not matter as much, but it still matters.

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