Washington diary: Cultivating an image

Of all the images that have been splashed across America’s newspapers to celebrate President Obama’s first 100 days in office and capture his fledgling administration in snapshots one in particular caught my imagination.
Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama.

Of all the images that have been splashed across America’s newspapers to celebrate President Obama’s first 100 days in office and capture his fledgling administration in snapshots one in particular caught my imagination.

The Obamas do not look awkward doing normal things
It shows the First Lady kneeling in the muddy White House vegetable garden, wearing a fetching red anorak and soiled gardening gloves. She is manhandling a potted plant together with a girl from a local Washington elementary school.

Michelle Obama looks comfortable as the nation’s First Gardener in a time of deep recession. Turning one corner of the White House lawn into a vegetable allotment was an inspired move. And like just about everything else the First Family has turned its attention to, it seemed to come naturally.


The Obamas do not look awkward doing normal things.
Considering the combination of limelight and expectations weighing on the White House, this is quite an achievement.
George W Bush smirked too much, displaying the unbearable lightness of his being at inappropriate times. His father was accused of not knowing what a supermarket checkout scanner was.

For someone who was educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School, Mrs Obama can also plant garden bulbs without looking as if she is handling nuclear waste
Richard Nixon looked extraterrestrial in his awkwardness, Gerald Ford came across as startled (as if he had been airdropped into the nation’s capital from the rural heartland), and once we knew about Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s winning smile seemed redolent with too many ulterior motives.

In their first 100 days, the Obamas have managed to look comfortable in their own skin, whether they are running with Portuguese water dogs, dancing at Inauguration Balls, schmoozing the Queen or joking with high school kids.
I was staring at that picture and then I noticed it. Sitting on the lapel of her red anorak.

At first I thought it was a large black bug. Or a smudge, perhaps. And it chimes with an era in which audiences and producers are forever trying to capture the celebrity of the mundane in TV reality shows or talent contests.

As a candidate, Barack Obama showed that he can harness the power of the Internet and reach out to millions of eager foot-soldiers while keeping the decisions that matter confined to a tiny kitchen cabinet.

Apart from a few slip-ups, he has maintained that mixture of outer charm and inner discipline, of outreach and exclusivity.

His use of the English language, frequently derided by his opponents during the election campaign as verbal garlands, has proven to be a useful and necessary tool of government at a time of profound crisis.

George W Bush wielded English like a blunt instrument. He was proud of it and it was memorable. W’s one-liners still spring to mind as emblems of an age.

There are very few Obama lines that I can recite, even though they were uttered in the last 100 days. But what I do remember is that they hit the right note and touched the right nerve at the right time.

On the economy, he was sober without being too pessimistic. On bankers’ bonuses, he shared our outrage without inciting the masses to put heads on stakes.

On life in the White House, he combined humility, pride and fun at being the boss with bemusement at life in the armoured bubble.

He told Europe that America had been too arrogant and then chastised Europeans for being prone to a knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

On swine flu, he said there was reason to be concerned but no cause for alarm.  He is both bold and measured. It is called nuance - and America and the world have been yearning for it.

It appears that Mr Obama understands the unavoidable truth that reality is a bit more complex than most politicians usually care to admit.

Without this degree of honesty he could not even begin to launch the dramatic changes that he is hoping to engineer in this country.

Whether it is healthcare, education, immigration reform (watch this space!), foreign policy or budget spending of gargantuan proportions, Barack Obama is, undeniably, a radical by home-grown standards.

He wants to rearrange America’s political furniture like no one has managed since Ronald Reagan. And - like the Great Communicator - he is doing so with the most unthreatening smile on his face and a winning arm placed around the public’s shoulder.

The marriage of reassuring language and bold policy has been his true victory in the first 100 days.

There are 1,362 days left in his first term. Results will determine how much longer Mr Obama can carry on juggling.

One thing is certain: he will have fresh, locally-grown organic vegetables.


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