- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

In 1979, former White House speechwriter James Fallows wrote a now-famous article, “The Passionless Presidency.” Fallows recounted how Jimmy Carter seemed unimpassioned by anything great, but instead put virtually everything - from personally scheduling White House tennis matches to meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev - on the same cold, well-organized and technocratic plane.

President Obama's political skills far exceed those of his Georgian predecessor. But his imperturbability echoes something of Mr. Carter's ultra-managerial conception of the presidency.

Recently, Mr. Obama was interviewed by “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft. Consider this exchange:

Mr. Kroft: “You're sitting here. And you're laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, 'I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money?' Are you punch-drunk?”

Mr. Obama (laughing): “No, no. There's gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.”

Mr. Obama seems to possess an emotional, analytical, sometimes even smirking detachment from what transpires around him. He speaks in a normal-guy cadence and smiles often, yet seems genuinely animated only when discussing his family. Nothing else seems to make his voice inflect with any enthusiasm, engagement or unpracticed gravity.

Irritation shows, sometimes, when he is held to account for things he has said or done. But otherwise, as Heritage Foundation scholar Jennifer Marshall has remarked, Mr. Obama's “supreme virtue seems to be his placidity.”

On March 24, the president held a prime-time news conference.Apart from its substance, Mr. Obama's demeanor again piqued the interest of careful observers. According to USA Today, his comments contained “a mix of the populist - 'I'm as angry as anybody about those bonuses,' he said at one point, albeit with a calm demeanor - and the professor.” Karl Rove commented that the president displayed “no emotion, no passion, no real connection.”

Oddly, he has surrounded himself with the decidedly non-placid. Rahm Emanuel's verbal coarseness and existential rage have earned his obscenity-laced language extensive news coverage. David Axelrod, the “eminence grise” who polls all things Obama, all the time, is known as a shrewd and ruthless political disciplinarian. Their presence shows Mr. Obama is serious not so much about governing, but about protecting himself. But to what end?

Does Mr. Obama really care much about actually serving as president, about the imponderable debt his various proposals are accruing (to the point of bankrupting the country, according to his one-time Commerce Secretary nominee Sen. Judd Gregg), about the implications of his plans to inflate both the size of the federal government and the quantity of the federal currency?

One wonders if the president is simply rather superficial. For example, in comments concerning his decision to lift restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, Mr. Obama decried what he termed “a false choice between sound science and moral values,” and said “we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

Let me see if I understand: Without ever discussing anything having to do with the humanity of the embryos in question or the right of the powerful (that would be us) to commodify and medically exploit them, the president blithely calls such concerns “a false choice” and impugns those who express them as being ideologues. In Mr. Obama's worldview, then, scientific research is a greater moral good than human dignity itself. This is an ideological assertion, one driven by a refusal to acknowledge even the nascent humanity of the embryo.

Simply put, Mr. Obama (a) acknowledges the moral challenge of embryonic stem-cell research (”Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.”), (b) refuses to interact with its scientific, philosophical or religious foundations, (c) dismisses it as mere ideology that opposes science per se, and then (d) advances federal funding for the research with the stroke of a pen and not even the vaguest hint of a troubled backward glance.

Superficiality and irony wed in Mr. Obama such that he seems to believe in nothing more deeply than his own wisdom and wit. At a time of profound moral, economic and international crises, this has to leave thoughtful citizens more than a little worried. As Peggy Noonan has written, “The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He's trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say.”

Mr. Obama will never schedule use of the White House tennis courts. But will he ever understand that national policy is not something with which he can engage intellectually, but without any personal investment?

Will he ever ponder, ever become enthused or angry or impassioned? To have such emotions, one must believe things deeply - or else be so smug in his convictions that nothing can ever unsettle them.

Arrogance or shallowness, winsomeness and the feeling of facile normality: One would hope for more, Mr. President. Much more.

Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council, and has served in the Bush administration and as chief of staff to two members of Congress.

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