By Eugene Robinson
It’s hard to argue with the results thus far from President Obama’s “no drama” approach to campaigning and governing, but I think he should learn to chew a little scenery when the occasion demands. Theatricality is one of the weapons in any leader’s arsenal, and a well-timed glower or growl can have more impact than a sheaf of position papers.
Obama’s critics are upset that at the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago, he treated his fellow leaders from around the hemisphere as peers. Obama’s collegial attitude was, indeed, a break from tradition—and was long overdue. Nothing would have been gained by barking orders at our neighbors and reinforcing the old image of insufferable yanqui arrogance.
There were a couple of moments at the summit, however, when Obama would have been right to throw off a little heat.
One was his encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose public persona is the polar opposite of Obama’s. Chavez is all theater, all the time. He made the most of his introduction to the new American leader, enfolding him in an all-smiles handshake and presenting him with a book that harshly indicts the long, painful history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.
Any idea that Chavez is some sort of threat to the United States is absurd. It’s hard to see his fiery anti-American rhetoric as anything more than performance art, given that he has been scrupulously careful to avoid even the slightest disruption of the U.S.-Venezuela economic relationship. Venezuela owns Citgo, among other concerns, and is a reliable supplier of oil to the thirsty U.S. market.
It should also be noted that Chavez has acquired his extraordinary executive powers—he obviously wants to be president-for-life—through the ballot box. Americans may not like him, but Venezuelans do—a majority of them, at least. However, it’s impossible to overlook his anti-democratic methods of silencing his critics and neutralizing any potential opposition. Even though he uses Venezuela’s oil to bolster the Castro regime in Cuba, Chavez is hardly a by-the-book socialist. He’s more of an old-style Latin American strongman, a caudillo, and that’s no model for the 21st century.
Chavez can be charming. But when Obama shook the man’s hand, he should have telegraphed clearly, through posture, expression and language, that he was not amused. Chavez’s gift of the book was meant to affront, not to enlighten, and I would have advised Obama to reciprocate in kind.
The other moment for presidential theatrics was Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s 50-minute speech excoriating, yes, the long and sordid history of U.S. meddling in Latin America. Asked later about Ortega’s peroration, Obama replied curtly that “it was 50 minutes long.”
Obama was correct not to walk out on the speech. But as was the case with Chavez’s tendentious present, Ortega’s speech was intended as a slap. When Obama spoke later, he should have prefaced his promising call for an “equal partnership” with other countries in the hemisphere with some strong pushback against those who would rather relive the insults of the past than move forward.
Granted, the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America is pretty sordid. And granted, Obama made clear that he intends no abdication of American leadership, but rather a new atmosphere of mutual respect. Most of the assembled heads of government—including Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Felipe Calderon of Mexico, leaders of Latin America’s two biggest economies—responded to Obama’s initiative graciously and with an eye toward the future.
Chavez, Ortega and a few others, however, made a show of being rude. A flash of presidential anger from Obama would have been in order.
My argument isn’t that Obama should try to be someone he’s not. It’s that he’s declining to use one of the tools at his disposal. As public anger over the U.S. bank bailouts was rising, a well-timed burst of presidential outrage might have allowed him to get out in front of it.
Obama was right to show respect for the leaders of neighboring countries big and small at the Summit of the Americas. Those who were not gracious enough to show respect for him deserved to be given—metaphorically, of course, and in the spirit of hemispheric cooperation—the back of the presidential hand.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza
President Obama stands for a group photo at the Summit of the Americas.