Leaving Them Wanting More
It has become commonplace for people to refer to Barack Obama as a “rock star” or a “global rock star,” in part because of his predilection for appearing in front of enormous crowds in stadiums with sets designed by Madonna’s production coordinator. But the analogy is imprecise. Obama is undeniably a star, but he’s not a rock star. Aside from drag queens, rock stars are the most exaggerated performers possible; they present themselves in wild garb and ghoulish makeup, and when they perform, they do so without inhibition or reticence.
Our president is very nearly the opposite. Even though he speaks more frequently and makes more television appearances than any president ever has, he usually tosses off his performances as though he doesn’t care what he’s saying or what he’s doing. He shows emotion in only two ways: flashes of anger that ripple the smooth surface of his affect like a rock dropped by a child from a height into a still pond, and climactic urgent preachment. Otherwise, he often seems barely to have a pulse.
Rock stars work hard to make themselves appear larger than life. Obama is a movie star. Movie stars are another type of creature entirely. They are effortlessly larger than life. They appear before us on a screen 20 feet high by 40 feet wide, and they manage to fill it without annoying us. They succeed at this because they hold something back. Directing the brilliant young stage actor Laurence Olivier, William Wyler told his star that if he conducted himself on camera as he did on the boards, with booming voice and florid body language, the effect would be hammy and grandiose. The screen, Olivier responded angrily, “was too anemic to take great acting.” Wyler was unmoved. “I want it better,” he answered, and by better he meant “less.” When Olivier learned how to keep some of himself to himself, he became a movie star.
The distance movie stars create between the viewer and themselves is alluring. There is something there that you cannot get to, cannot quite penetrate. They retain a peculiar zone of privacy even as millions of people can see into their very pores.
This is true of Obama. In this sense, he does have something in common with Ronald Reagan, the one-time movie star who was so impossible to comprehend that the effort to do so caused his authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, to suffer a nervous breakdown. Obama, like Reagan, possesses a sense of self that is, one suspects, bottomless, which is what has made it possible for him to rise so high so quickly in spite of all the obstacles in his path. But what that “self” is, at root, is almost unknowable.
It is at this point that Obama diverges from Reagan. Reagan was personally indecipherable, but politically and ideologically he was not. His ideas were distinct; they were clear; he had developed them over many decades, as his diaries and letters indicate; and what was left to his underlings was how to execute policies based on those ideas (or how to undercut the ideas by claiming they could not pass muster as policy).
Obama refuses to clarify or sharpen his views. He talks about them endlessly and gets no closer to the nub. This is true on issue after issue, but nowhere more disturbingly than on Afghanistan. He felt free to argue in April, as Max Boot and Abe Greenwald detail in their lead pieces this month, for a counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan—and then felt equally free to fall silent and refuse to make a decision five months later when the general he tasked to execute the policy issued a report on what measures should be taken to carry out the policy.
Movie stars always leave you wanting more. A president simply cannot leave his generals, the American people, and the world wanting more when it comes to policy. If he does, he has failed the only true test of leadership: saying plainly that he will do something, and then doing it. Without that, a president, even a global star, is just a picture on a screen, no more substantial than the two dimensions in which movie stars do their ultimately inconsequential work.