The headline out of Friday’s news conference was that the president was happy. Barack Obama’s post-midterm-election scowl was gone, replaced by the wide smile that once charmed the country. Emerging from his bunker, he blithely engaged reporters (all of them women), calling out a “bless you,” when he heard a sneeze.
The news conference took place after some real and surprising post-election gains: a climate deal with China, an executive order protecting 5 million undocumented immigrants, a ruling on ozone emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency, a budget deal that kept the government open and the historic restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. He sent Sony Pictures a stern message that it was wrong to pull “The Interview” because a North Korean dictator, who dresses like Johnny Cash and wears a porcupine on his head, had made some empty threats.
Maybe Obama was just in a holiday mood knowing he’d soon be winging it home to Hawaii for a Christmas vacation with the family whose company he prefers to all others’. Each year, we swear Scrooge’s oath to keep the holiday in our hearts year round.
That’s hard enough for anyone, let alone a guy with Obama’s headaches, but perhaps Friday was a dress rehearsal for the months ahead. In the midst of responding to the reporters’ questions there was a quiet moment when he stopped to acknowledge to reporters in the room that neither he nor they spend enough time with loved ones. That’s an Obama you wouldn’t mind seeing more of.
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There’s no guide to presidential happiness, although bookshelves groan with advice for the rest of us. Stay close to siblings; have a best friend; spend money on activities not things; get a dog. Americans don’t much care if their presidents are happy except when they’re running for office, when surveys show we prefer the candidate we’d like to have a beer with. We might even be suspicious of a cheerful chief executive. What’s so funny? We sleep better at night knowing your hair is turning gray with worry.
On the other hand, we know that happy’s close cousins, optimism and resilience, are essential to getting things done. Obama allowed that there had been problems such as Ebola and children crossing the border that “may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle,” but that eventually do get fixed. “When we work together, we can’t be stopped.”
That’s a better approach than pounding your fist on a table or your head against a wall. It’s painful to picture Richard Nixon roaming the White House, talking to portraits and asking Henry Kissinger to kneel and pray.
Presidents are always having to put on a happy face and bounce back. During the impeachment process, pundits thought Bill Clinton was the Titanic until the iceberg went down. Night was day on the White House lawn; his daughter knew the most intimate and needy details of his sex life, as did her classmates. Bill Clinton was such a stock joke for the late-night comedians that Hillary Clinton would mute the TV in the solarium when David Letterman came on.
Neither cracked, and if they had, as bad as it was, it would have been worse, like parents who overslept and stopped getting the kids off to school. On his 52nd birthday in August 1998, Hillary led the staff in song as if Bill were a 10-year-old whose behavior had earned him a pony and a trip to Disneyland.
One of Obama’s biggest mistakes was to create and then stick with the idea that if only he’d had a bourbon with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, or a golf game with House Speaker John Boehner, or suffered through just one more dinner with congressional Republicans, they would have stopped somewhere short of their 40th attempt to repeal his health care plan.
Presidents have suffered from polarized capitals since before he arrived, indeed, since before he was born. Ronald Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton were all backslappers to varying degrees, all reached across the aisle, and all ended up relying on their own parties to get things done. Modern presidents have to accept going it alone.
On Friday, there was a glimpse of the genial charisma that charmed the country (enough of it anyway) to elect a first-term senator to the presidency. If Obama could get back in touch with that, his remaining two years in office could be a gift to all. As Scrooge reminds us, it’s never too late to change.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.