What makes a president presidential? From communication research we know it comes from credibility defined largely by expertise, trust, conviction, comfort and something called homophily (perceived similarity).
President Obama's expertise gaps occasionally show. For a while he was blaming the past - the economic burden left to him by an irresponsible prior administration. That comes up now and then, but he's moved on. He is more informed now and it shows.
With regard to trust, he has gone to the people with speeches, town meetings, even on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, which was criticized intensely by many Republicans. All are part of getting his messages out to us in an era of media sound bites. It is smart. Where he falls down a bit here is in transparency that was promised. It showed in White House Press Secretary Robert Gibb's press briefing on March 30 when he clumsily tried to explain why GM CEO Rick Wagoner was forced out by President Obama but failed CEOs of Banks were still in place. And his presidential trustworthiness slips, too, by his willingness to bet the bank, so to speak, on the ideas of two men - Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Here is where they seem uncertain. Here is where we hear less than we need to know and he may too.
Conviction is evident when he speaks. It was evident in his comments to the Iranian people, somewhat lacking in his press conference on March 24th. But overall, he has developed a demeanor of confidence that does not slip over the line into arrogance, as it so often did with President George W. Bush. President Obama has a number of aligning actions at easy reach (e.g., "Well, look ...." ) that help him to convey his ideas with confidence rather than close-mindedness. Our previous president confused those two.
His comfort level is more evident by the day. When Vice President Biden made a joke about Chief Justice Robert's flub of the oath of office, the new president was immediately testy. He was as yet uncomfortable in his new role, tired from the election and inauguration, and snapped too soon when he might have made light of the issue or merely given Joe a friendly nudge. We rarely see that testiness now.
He is also still one of us more than he is one of them. And this is critical - a line he needs to watch as power always alters those who possess it. When I heard a senator complaining about the president making time to meet with his children when they get home from school, claiming that CEOs don't do that, just like real men don't eat quiche, it was laughable. More senior managers and working people in general ought to at least call when their kids arrive home from school because they usually have a lot to say at that point unlikely to be expressed later when they're tired and hungry. President Obama hasn't fallen for the myth that the only road to success is the one that leaves your family in the dust.
Rare is a president who learns so fast, who observes so deeply, who can take criticism and walk away better for it. In these ways, whether or not we agree with his decisions regarding more troops in Afghanistan, more money for bailouts, rights of detainees, prioritization of pressing issues, and even his family's choice of dog, it's worth noting that he is emerging into a president cognizant of his power, yet aware, too, of those who gave it to him. He delays on promises delivered now and then, and there's a tendency toward insularity in his choice of advisers, but he learns his limits and new ways to lead as he goes and that's a far cry better than what we had before.
Dr. Reardon also blogs at bardscove.
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