For the past two centuries, to be the POTUS is to be, quite literally, the man. Naturally, the position of president of the United States is a symbol of masculinity. One man representing us all. Whether he should or shouldn’t, the president projects our image back into our faces, showing the world what men can be.
For George Washington, it’s the Arthurian triumph. The man, fighting off all that is evil, crushing his oppressors, and defining for us what’s right and what’s wrong. The president, when it all began, was an unmatched mythic hero that we all were supposed to live up to.
Abraham Lincoln’s intelligence strengthened his powerful silence. Similarly, Teddy Roosevelt “spoke softly, but carried a big stick”—and it was one big-ass stick. A true “man’s man,” Roosevelt’s iconic masculinity influenced our 20th-century notions of male fortitude and leadership. As FDR led an emasculated country out of the Depression and into war, his unparalleled leadership and economic acumen were at odds with his disability. Rarely did the public see the man in his true physical form.
For all of his bumbling, stumbling, and mumbling, George W. Bush wore his cavalier masculinity on his sleeve. He was no compromiser and no negotiator. In October 2001, when the Taliban offered to surrender Osama for trial in exchange for a halt to the bombing of civilians, Bush refused, responding, “We know he’s guilty.” Whatever decisions he made and however wrong we thought they were, we still knew what kind of man he was.
American presidents have shown us how to be men, but not in their decisions or how they fixed the economy or why they invaded this country or that. Their influence lies in the way they carry themselves, in the way those decisions are made.
So what kind of man is Obama?
Perhaps bin Laden’s scalp will define Obama’s presidency. But look at how it happened: he delayed the decision, but he never wavered. The president knew about bin Laden’s location back in March. He could’ve bombed the house then, but considering civilian deaths and the destruction of evidence, he opted to train an elite military group and strike more subtly.
A noble and thoughtful persona—an evolved persona—defines Obama as president. We see it in his willingness to listen, to compromise, to negotiate, to sacrifice. We see it in his ability to communicate, his awe-inspiring oratory power, but also in his empathy. When he addresses a resonant subject—the Tucson memorial, for example—it strikes a deep chord.
And we see it in his humanity. Obama’s calling Kanye West a jackass, filling out NCAA brackets, and playing HORSE with reporters. He’s interviewing with Jon Stewart. He’s patting the birthers on the head. And he’s making jokes about Donald Trump the night before the defining moment of his life as president. He’s himself. He cracks jokes when the moment calls for it, but he’s free of BS. He’s doing his job in a way we all would want to. We might not agree with all he’s done, but it’s the way that he’s done it that matters. Strip away the politics and look at him as a human being: he’s a man you want to follow. He’s a man by being himself.
—Photo AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais