THE BLOG
08/15/2011 11:52 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

America's Rorschach President?

Most American presidential candidates, at some point during their campaigns, publish a glowing, self-serving autobiography. These volumes tend to be the work of ghost-writers, although occasionally some are written personally by the candidate: they contain personal details written in a style reflective of the candidate's personality and manner of speaking that no co-author could present so clearly. Rarely are these books great literature, but almost always they contain a small gem that discloses more about the candidate than the candidate probably intended or wanted.

My favorite candidate autobiography is Jimmy Carter's Why Not the Best? The book reads like Carter talks, with too many declarative sentences sounding like they should end with a question mark. The messages are simple and homespun, right out of a Georgia peanut farmer's world. And personal.

Extremely personal.

Early on, candidate Carter talks about his fears as a young boy. He had two: that he would be found to have "malocclusion" of teeth and retention of urine. These fears, of course, literally beg the question as to why a pre-teenager would focus so much on having a perfect bite (perhaps braces were unavailable at the time, or too expensive) and maintaining an empty bladder. It turns out that the young, and perhaps precociously ambitious, or obsessed, Jimmy Carter had his heart set on attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. And what was critical to young Jimmy Carter was that the Naval Academy required a physical entrance exam. Potential Midshipmen were disqualified if they were found to have malocclusion of teeth and retention of urine.

And then the governor of Georgia and future president of the United States let us know more than we ever wanted to know: that each time he went to the bathroom to urinate, he used to worry about getting into Annapolis if he didn't manage to get that last little drop off...

In this overly confessional revelation, Jimmy Carter was already telling us that his presidency would be one that worried over the trivial and micromanaged the pointless. Some will recall that he personally approved use of the White House tennis court.

Candidate Carter's autobiography tells us candidly more information than we needed to know. Or perhaps it was a stroke of genius. Knowing too much is, on balance, probably better than knowing too little, especially when it comes to selecting the person who holds the highest office in the land, often called "the Leader of the Free World."

Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who has written two autobiographies during his rise from Illinois state senator to United States senator to president of the United States. Both Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope have sold millions of copies. The Audacity of Hope set the basic theme and tone for his 2008 campaign which espoused an agenda of hope, a new beginning, and transformative change.

Near the end of the "Prologue" on page 11, we find the following sentence: "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." He went on to announce that, "[a]s such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them."

Can anyone imagine these sentences coming from Ronald Reagan? Or FDR? Or LBJ? Then-Senator Barack Obama had written, in essence, that he served as a Rorschach test in which the American public could read into him whatever they thought they saw, wanted, or needed.

Reagan, Roosevelt, and Johnson were "conviction" presidents, as distinguished from more "managerial" presidents. They knew what they wanted to do as leaders and where they wanted to take the country. Before reaching the White House they had extensive careers in public office and, in Reagan's case, in the private sector as an actor, head of the Screen Actor's Guild, and spokesman for General Electric.

Barack Obama's rise to the presidency reflects an altogether different experience -- a fact which is now beginning to become abundantly clear as pundits from right and left either pummel him for his fecklessness or offer advice for his redirection. His presidency is at risk, however, to the extent that he finds solace in irritating both political extremes in our nation.

So being more of a perennial optimist, let me offer some advice for his redirection. For nearly 10 years, I served as an appointee in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The person who hired me in the Reagan administration -- then a boss, later a mentor, and now a close friend -- told me that he once counseled then-Vice President George H.W. Bush that if he wanted to run a successful presidential campaign, he should lock himself in a room without any advisers, take out a pen and a legal pad, and write down on that pad the two or three things that he most wanted to accomplish as president -- the goals that he really felt deeply about and for which he would be willing to lose the election.

That President Bush never really followed that advice. In the final few months before Bush's November 1992 loss to Governor Bill Clinton, the media began to write about how Bush lacked a domestic agenda and really didn't care about being re-elected. There was the famous supermarket scanner image, followed by his unfortunate "get me out of here" look at his wristwatch during a debate with Clinton in Richmond. But Bush was a highly competitive politician: he wanted a second term, but his White House grew complacent after winning the Persian Gulf War.

Of course the president did have a domestic agenda: he had been personally involved in securing passage of major legislation such as the "Americans with Disabilities Act," a new clean air bill, and significant reforms of our civil rights laws. These were important legislative victories, but they simply did not matter to the voters who had elected Bush to what many thought would be Ronald Reagan's third term. And, of course, his 1990 budget deal that reversed his famous campaign pledge of "read my lips: no new taxes" made his political dilemma even worse with the Republican base. When you put everything together, the picture that emerges is more of a managerial president than a conviction president. Many Americans had no clue what George H.W. Bush would do with a second term, so they decided en masse not to give him that option. The man who once enjoyed 90 percent public approval lost to Bill Clinton with only 38 percent of the popular vote.

Martha's Vineyard is a wonderful spot for relaxing, thinking, and reading. It would be good for President Obama to spend some of his vacation studying and reflecting on the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies. Like George H.W. Bush, Obama has enjoyed legislative victories, but they are viewed more as the result of Congressional Democrats than active priority-setting by the White House. Americans do not typically reward a president whom they widely perceive as a blank screen, especially after nearly four years in office. With all of today's problems, both at home and internationally, the country wants and needs conviction leadership.

President Obama, find that quiet room, go there by yourself, take out that pen and paper, and then tell us after Labor Day what you really care about and what you are willing to lose re-election over. If you don't, then what you foresaw in The Audacity of Hope about disappointing everyone may become your legacy.

Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. The above views are solely the author's.