Our first fe­male pres­i­dent?

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

If Bill Clin­ton was our first black pres­i­dent, as Toni Mor­ri­son once pro­claimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman pres­i­dent. Phew. That was fun. Now, if you’ll just keep those hatch­ets hol­stered and hear me out.

No, I’m not call­ing Obama a girlie pres­i­dent. But … he may be suf­fer­ing a rhetor­i­cal-testos­terone deficit when it comes to deal­ing with crises, with which he has been richly en­dowed.

It isn’t that he isn’t “cow­boy” enough, as oth­ers have sug­gested. Aren’t we done with that? It is that his ap­proach is fem­i­nine in a nor­ma­tive sense. That is, we per­ceive and ap­praise him ac­cord­ing to cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions, and he’s not ex­actly caus­ing anx­i­ety in Al­pha-male­dom.

We’ve come a long way gen­der-wise. Not so long ago, women would be cen­sured for speak­ing or writ­ing in pub­lic. But cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions are stick­ier and sludgier than oil. Our en­light­ened hu­man selves may want to elim­i­nate gen­der norms, but our lizard brains have a dif­fer­ent agenda.

Women, inar­guably, still are pun­ished for fail­ing to ad­here to gen­der norms by act­ing “too mas­cu­line” or “not fem­i­nine enough.” In her fas­ci­nat­ing study about “Hat­ing Hil­lary,” Kar­lyn Kohrs Camp­bell de­tails the ways our for­mer first lady was chas­tised for the sin of talk­ing like a lawyer and, by ex­ten­sion, “like a man.”

Could it be that Obama is suf­fer­ing from the in­verse?

When Mor­ri­son wrote in The New Yorker about Bill Clin­ton’s “black­ness,” she cited the char­ac­ter­is­tics he shared with the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity:

“Clin­ton dis­plays al­most ev­ery trope of black­ness: sin­gle-par­ent house­hold, born poor, work­ing-class, sax­o­phone-play­ing, McDon­ald’s-and­junk-food-lov­ing boy from Arkansas.”

If we ac­cept that premise, even if un­se­ri­ously prof­fered, then we could say that Obama dis­plays many tropes of fe­male­ness. I say that in the nicest pos­si­ble way. I don’t think that do­ing things a woman’s way is ev­i­dence of de­fi­ciency but, rather, sug­gests an evo­lu­tion­ary achieve­ment.

Nev­er­the­less, we still do have cer­tain cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially re­lated to lead­er­ship. When we ask ques­tions about a politician’s be­liefs, fam­ily or hob­bies, we’re look­ing for fa­mil­iar­ity, what we can cite as “nor­mal” and there­fore re­as­sur­ing.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, men and women com­mu­ni­cate dif­fer­ently. Women tend to be coali­tion builders rather than mav­er­icks (with the oc­ca­sional rogue ex­cep­tion). While men seek ways to mea­sure them­selves against oth­ers, for rea­sons re­quir­ing no elab­o­ra­tion, women form cir­cles and talk it out.

Obama is a chat­terbox who makes Alan Alda look like Genghis Khan.

The BP oil cri­sis has of­fered a text­book case of how Obama’s rhetor­i­cal style has im­peded his ef­fec­tive­ness. The pres­i­dent may not have had the abil­ity to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his man­lier out­bursts. No one ex­pected him to don his wet­suit and dive into the Gulf, but he did have the author­ity to in­ter­vene im­me­di­ately and he didn’t. In­stead, he de­ferred to BP, weigh­ing, con­sid­er­ing, even de­liv­er­ing jokes to the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion din­ner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast. His lack of im­me­di­ate, com­mand­ing ac­tion was per­ceived as a lack of lead­er­ship be­cause, well, it was. When he fi­nally ad­dressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the cri­sis, Obama’s speech fea­tured 13 per­cent pas­sive-voice con­struc­tions, the high­est level mea­sured in any ma­jor pres­i­den­tial ad­dress this cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to the Global Lan­guage Monitor, which tracks and an­a­lyzes lan­guage.

Granted, the cen­tury is young — and it shouldn’t sur­prise any­one that Obama’s rhetoric would sim­mer next to Ge­orge W. Bush’s boil. But pas­siv­ity in a leader is not a re­as­sur­ing pos­ture.

Camp­bell’s re­search, in which she af­firms that men can as­sume fem­i­nine com­mu­ni­ca­tion styles suc­cess­fully (Ron­ald Rea­gan and Bill Clin­ton), sug­gests holes in my own the­ory. She in­sists that men are safe as­sum­ing fe­male styles as long as they meet rhetor­i­cal norms for ef­fec­tive ad­vo­cacy — clar­ity and co­gency of ar­gu­ment, ap­pro­pri­ate and com­pelling ev­i­dence, and pre­empt­ing op­pos­ing po­si­tions.

I’m not so sure. The mas­cu­line-coded con­text of the Oval Of­fice poses spe­cial chal­lenges, fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated by a cri­sis that de­mands de­ci­sive ac­tion. It would ap­pear that Obama tests Camp­bell’s ar­gu­ment that “noth­ing pre­vents” men from ap­pro­pri­at­ing women’s style with­out neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

In­deed, neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to Obama’s speech sug­gests the op­po­site. Obama may prove to be our first male pres­i­dent who pays a po­lit­i­cal price for act­ing too much like a woman.

And, per­haps, next time will be a real woman’s turn.

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