Leaders like Obama can't be workaholics as well as family men

Don’t play golf! Do take the ice-bucket challenge! We really do ask the impossible

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Perceptions of leadership, or the tragic crumbling thereof, have been the undoing of the powerful since the world began – since the first caveman was accused of “not being able to take a joke”, or of eating a bacon sandwich in a way not aesthetically pleasing to the cave painter in residence.

And Barack Obama, a man usually so sleek and Americanly immune to the pitfalls of bad teeth and accidental gurning, has learned the full Janus effect of statesmanship this week, in the public response to his reactions on two counts.

The first, that he played golf in the afternoon after making a statement about the brutal and senseless death of journalist James Foley; the second, that he refused to participate in the ice bucket challenge, a cynical piece of hashtag activism that purports to be for charity but really just satisfies the need in all of us to see high-profile people looking ridiculous, and boost our follower counts on Twitter.

People have been outraged in equal measure at both – Obama is on the one hand heartless, and on the other a spoilsport. Clearly, the two issues are of very different levels of priority and sensitivity. But they both point to the same disjointed way a modern electorate wants to see its leader – at once righteously wedded to his role to such an extent that his private life and personal happiness are subordinate to it, and simultaneously light of heart, human, a family man. And fully clued up as to what's trending on social media, of course.

We cannot have both. What we got, yesterday, from Obama was the most coherent version of its closest approximation: a head of state undeniably agitated by and animated over the events in Iraq, who is nonetheless also a man in the middle of his summer holiday.

The photographs of him smiling on the golf course after speaking to Foley’s parents and addressing the nation are jarring, but only for the fact it’s so unlike Obama’s well-oiled press machine to let something like this slip out. Those calling it inappropriate and morally lacking would do well to let us know how they fill their spare time in the wake of tragedy in far-off lands. Contemplative reflection?

To demand a stopping of clocks and silencing of dogs is to ask our politicians to become one of those Taiwanese dancers who laugh with one side of their face and at the same time cry with the other. It’s every bit as unrealistic as the photos we demand of them looking happy, well rested and like someone who spends enough time with his children.

And so to the ice bucket challenge. The idea is to douse oneself with cold water, donating to a cause and then nominating others to do the same. Or, one can just donate, which is what Obama chose to do. And thank goodness: there are some people you wouldn’t mind seeing shivering in wet clothes, pompadour askew, the usual photoface wiped blank by frosty shock. The leader of the free world is not one of them.

But the journey from laurels to laughing stock is the meat and potatoes of our culture, from the literary canon to the sporting arena, in government and the gunk dunk. We rejoice in the fallibility of our superiors; we like them being a good sport so that we, the enlightened mob, can tell them exactly what they’ve done wrong, laugh at them and give them an affectionate kicking.

In Obama, the latter-day love child of personality politics and genuine progress, we thought we had someone close to leader nirvana. He was the imagined black president of apocalypse blockbusters – but real! He was handsome, fun and cool; he looked good in photos and admitted he’d done drugs. But as well as all that, he seemed like he meant business, that he could lead a country. In short, he was a man of wax.

You might argue he still is. You might argue that it’s August and those with an axe to grind saw a story. After all, David Cameron cancelled his holiday after a similarly confected outrage this week. If one positive thing comes from that bonfire of vanities, let it at least mean that they sort out the phone reception along the more remote shingles of Cornwall.

When Ed Miliband staked his claim on next year’s election, he very sensibly declared he was opting out of the race for the most delightful photo op. He was wise to: the public appetite for those in authority making fools of themselves is inversely proportional to the public’s engagement with that very authority. The collective memory is short – you’re forgotten again before the ice bucket has even landed. Then you’re just someone in a sopping shirt. The opposite of personality politics is not stuffy or remote. You can dry off, but you can’t get back the gravitas once it’s sluiced off.