10/09/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Does Obama Need to Really "Want It" to Be a Good Leader?

As the dust settles a week after Obama's disastrous first debate performance, a new narrative is emerging: he doesn't want it enough to win it. "Does Obama Even Want to Win the Election?" asked Michael Tomasky, calling the president "withdrawn and distant," and asking, "Is he enthusiastic about keeping this job, or [is he] just maybe tired of being president?" Andrew Sullivan has been apoplectic: "Does Obama Want Out?" he titled a recent post, writing of the president's "deflated spirit" and "restlessness" for a different job. "I've never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week," he wrote, breathlessly announcing that Obama had "just essentially forfeited the election." Garance Franke-Ruta's Atlantic headline screamed that Obama's "Heart's Not in It."

Some are going further, suggesting not only that Obama can't win without the fire in his belly but that he shouldn't -- that his poor and listless performance shows he is too deflated and restless to do a good job. Never mind that, as Slate's John Dickerson writes, there's no proven link between how one campaigns and how one governs. Buzz Bissinger, a lifelong Democrat, announced that after seeing Obama's abysmal debate performance, he is giving up on the president and throwing his vote to Mitt. Obama, he wrote, was "burnt out" and "tired of selling his message," which he wasn't good at to begin with. "I am not sure Obama really wants to be president in any practical way," he concluded, claiming that he didn't "see Obama spending much time running the country." Romney, by contrast, won him over at the debate. He "did not simply act like he wanted to be president; he wants to be president. He showed vigor and enthusiasm, and excitement, a man who wants to lead."

It seems obvious that Americans want to elect someone who shows they really want the job. But should they? Why do Americans need to believe that their leaders love, love, love the idea of leading them every single day? In an ordinary job interview, that criterion may make sense. But for much of our history, the presidency -- and public service in general -- was not regarded as a job but a calling. As such, many of our most effective leaders have been recruited despite -- indeed often because of -- showing great reluctance to govern.

After leading the colonists to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington wanted nothing more than to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon. Fortunately for the birth of modern democracy, he quashed an effort by his supporters to make him king. Indeed, what made him a uniquely qualified political leader was his decision to resign his commission in 1783, relinquishing power when he could have consolidated it. He returned to his genteel life of plowing rows of cotton and tobacco (perhaps the historical equivalent of modern-day golf) until he was called out of retirement to the Constitutional Convention and eventually became our first president. For his reserved comportment, he was compared to Cincinnatus, that paragon of Roman virtue who likewise was briefly called off his farm to lead Rome to victory against the Aequians.

For Thomas Jefferson, "ambition" was a vice, not a criterion for good leadership. It was the sign of a man on the make who was likely to put his own narrow interests above the good of the country. In that era, qualified leaders, still usually drawn from the landed gentry, were expected to be disinterested, not to be confused with "uninterested" -- the former means impartial, not bored. A good leader, it was thought, must be capable of putting the national interest above his own ambition, and that was most likely to happen if he wasn't consumed by an endless appetite for his own power. Candidates "stood" for office instead of "running," a word that smacked precisely of the overzealous quest for power that was thought to disqualify someone from leadership.

Though the disinterested persona was something of a fiction, it was critical to political fortunes in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. As Slate's Dickerson chronicles, for much of our history, presidents have worked assiduously to avoid the perception that they wanted nothing more than to lead America, opting instead to wait quietly, sometimes on their own porches, to be informed of their nomination.

Yet if the disinterested ideal was partly fiction, it did reflect a fundamental truth: the character of a leader matters, and, to the extent that voters can assess it, tells us more about how they'll lead than the promises of their rhetoric. This may seem obvious, but judging from the sweeping pronouncements of folks like Buzz Bissinger and David Brooks (who, after thrashing Romney's "47 percent" comment as a window into his clueless soul, somehow accepted his string of debate mendacities as evidence of the real Mitt), too many Americans are privileging performance over substance.

It's a rather astounding conflation. Bissinger concludes his Obama lament -- the one explaining why he's casting his first ever vote for a Republican presidential candidate -- thusly: "He is just too cool for school in a country desperate for the infectiousness of rejuvenation. Romney has it. Our president no longer does." From one debate, a lifelong Democrat will sacrifice the Supreme Court and support a candidate who wants to further skew the tax system to the rich and wrote off half the electorate?

Blog traffic, even among Obama supporters, echoes the complaint, reaching back to Obama's lackluster convention speech to assert that the president's insufficient zeal augurs not just a political loss but poor leadership: "What we saw in Denver was the Obama that was there to be seen all along: disengaged, self-interested, lecturing, not all that likable and a poor communicator. Where he's failed as president, those qualities have all come into play."

Performance is an inevitable part of both campaigning and governing. But in an age of personality, we'd do well to remember character. Bill Clinton had plenty of personality, and an excess of ambition. He gave us (and gives us) the dramatics we crave, and his performance of empathy flatters us. He loves, loves, loves to lead us. But his personal traits -- his particular brand of ambition and narcissism -- also caused plenty of failures: on healthcare, on gay rights, on terrorism and, above all, with the psychodrama of Lewinskygate, which derailed his own agenda and the nation's important business for a full quarter of his presidency. Ronald Reagan had a congenial and optimistic personality and, with an uplifting smile, began to systematically dismantle the welfare state and turn some of our most vulnerable citizens onto the streets.

There's a reason the current president promised to be "no-drama Obama." It's a promise he's delivered on, and that has served the country well. Those who want to know what a re-elected Obama is likely to do should not be distracted by his underwhelming recent performances. They should look back at his first-term record and note how consistent it is with his pragmatic and moderate personal character: an effective, but ultimately modest, balanced stimulus that's helped turn the economy around; the achievement, at long-last, of near-universal healthcare using an idea originating in conservative circles; the comeback of that emblem of American capitalism, the auto industry; winding down two wars and killing al Qaeda's leader in a bold but limited strike that deployed smart power rather than chest-thumping militarism; advancing and protecting reproductive and LGBT rights.

Pit Obama's character and record against the dubious promises of a reinvented Romney and it must be asked: do we want a president who wants it so bad he'll do anything to win?