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Of Obama and of Hamlet

Mark Mardell | 12:00 UK time, Saturday, 5 June 2010

duo_getty_226.jpgThe flashing smile has disappeared, the inspirational invocations of hope are absent.

In their place are words like "catastrophe", "disaster", "risk" and "danger". But watching President Obama's performance over the last few weeks I can't help feeling his heart isn't really in it.

Americans living along the Gulf of Mexico feel pummelled, upset and furious and the media here are insistent their commander-in-chief holds up a mirror to their emotions. As I watch this theatre unfold a scene from a play keeps popping into my head.

The presidential sternness seems forced - he appears relieved when he can take refuge in wonkish detail of blowout preventers, marine risers and other underwater arcana.

That scene I keep thinking about ? Hamlet... beside Ophelia's grave when he asks:

Woo't weep? woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself? Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile? I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave?

Laertes has just jumped into his sister's grave and Hamlet is insisting that he's willing to match this histrionic performance. His lack of extravagant display so far is no measure of his grief.

The president might sympathise. He is under constant pressure to weep, fight and tear himself in flamboyant demonstration of his anger at this undoubtedly awful disaster.

His spokesman Robert Gibbs is daily pressed by reporters to share evidence of presidential fury, forcing him to reply earnestly: "I've seen rage from him, Chip. I have."

That was not enough. Questions went on. Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do?

Gibbs suggested the president clenched his jaw in meetings. This clearly isn't good enough. I've seen pictures of the situation room. Could the water glass not be filled brimful with eisel - that's vinegar by the way.

And while eating crocodiles might not be on, alligator burgers are a speciality of the Gulf region. Such symbolism might be lost on the White House press corps.

But perhaps the president shares a problem with Hamlet that goes to the heart of what it means to be a leader, and what leading means to Barack Obama. They are both earnest.

Because he rose to power on a tide of dazzling rhetoric one can forget Obama had to force himself to perform, that in the early days his team despaired that he was too earnestly professorial, too dismissive of cheap political tricks.

For a while he rejected what became his most famous sound bite - "yes we can" - as stomach-churningly trite.

And he still doesn't like the nasty stuff - as president he is wary of too much anger. The airwaves in the US are full of ham actors sawing the air, ripping their shirts.

For them there can never be an honest disagreement about policy - the president has to be in league with terrorists, un-American, a reincarnation of Chairman Mao. Obama has trouble finding his own way of being angry without resorting to pantomime.

But what this president shares with Hamlet is being an unfamiliar character in a familiar setting.

Hamlet is of course a tragedy of many depths, but it is in part a reaction to what went before - Shakespeare's reflection on the tradition of the revenge tragedy, those blood-soaked Jacobean dramas of such horrific violence that they would make even Tarantino blush.

Shakespeare is reflecting on what happens if you plonk a new man, the new emerging man of the renaissance, learned and intellectual, reflective, with a rich inner life, in the middle of a fairly hackneyed plot. What happens to a new sort of man in an old sort of drama.

You might remember it didn't turn out too well.

The president is not the prince, even his critics don't argue he's holding back from one rapier thrust, one obvious decisive action that could save the day.

But it does seem sometimes that reflection is prized above action in the Obama administration.

The man once nicknamed "No drama Obama" sees leadership as the careful consideration of conflicting views, pulling together of the best strands to build a solid consensus.

It would be neat to see this as a reaction to the decision making style of President Bush, who was so obviously an actor in a revenge tragedy - making instant judgement calls based on gut instincts without much reflection or debate about the consequences.

But Obama's been like this for years - in his late twenties at Harvard law school he was known as a moderator, solving problems by asking questions.

A new biography reveals that friends gently ribbed him about it. When they went to the cinema they would ask in mockery of his style: "Do you want salt on your popcorn? Do you even want popcorn?"

One can imagine Obama engaging in agonised soliloquy - he does seem consumed by the Gulf conundrum rather than relishing the opportunity to display leadership and seize this crisis by the scruff of its neck.

It is too easy to forget he's barely been in office for 18 months. We're barely out of act one and there's still time for him to learn on the job. Unlike Hamlet, he gets another chance. This is not yet a tragedy for the president .


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