The Iceman Leadeth: The cool diplomacy of Barack Obama
After British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visits Washington this week for consultations at the White House, and U.S. President Barack Obama ultimately leave office, it is unlikely you’ll find the two of them vacationing together. While the Tory PM and his American counterpart have developed a comfortable working relationship that is actually somewhat warmer than many had predicted given the political distance between the two, these guys aren’t pals. But Cameron shouldn’t dwell on it. Obama doesn’t have a lot of pals among the members of the world’s leadership club.
Obama doesn’t dream up clever nicknames for his international buddies, as George W. Bush did. The PM will never be “the Cameronator” or “Mr. Horses and Hounds” in this White House. Nor should he expect the kind of late-night phone calls from Bubba that were a hallmark of the Bill Clinton era and made the Clinton-Blair relationship such a close partnership. And the kind of soul-mate, connected-at-the-heart-by-a-Laffer-curve, mind-meld of the Reagan-Thatcher years is out of the question.
At issue is whether Obama’s cool is an impediment — or an asset. Although he is, to use a term favored by my daughters’ kindergarten teachers, “slow to warm,” he is also famously even-keeled in the face of pressure or difficult circumstances. He hasn’t much liked the lecturing and condescension of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he manages his emotions well and, I’m told, it is only after the pedantic, arrogant Israeli prime minister leaves the room that Obama feels free to express his emotions to some of his very small circle of close colleagues. (“No drama” caricatures aside, Obama has certainly shown his inner circle that behind the scenes he is frequently capable of losing his temper and, more frequently, of sharply communicating his displeasure with staffers who frustrate him with lack of preparation or an inclination to try to draw him into their petty agency politics.)
Interestingly, it looks like the Republican Party is going to present him with an opponent who is just as chill. As one senior Democratic Party observer put it, “2012 could be the year of the icebox vs. the refrigerator.” Mitt Romney is no hot-blooded back-slapper either. According to an article in this past Saturday’s New York Times, Romney had chilly relations with the Massachusetts legislature that parallel those of Obama with Capitol Hill. Neither man has particularly warm relations even with the leaders of his own party.