President Obama didn't come out swinging at his press conference. He didn't come out cowering, either. Instead, what he delivered was vintage Obama -- thoughtful, cautious, and boring, the quintessentially conservative president (temperamentally) that Sam Tanenhaus diagnoses in his book, The Death of Conservatism. It was almost as though Obama was acting as though nothing had really changed that much. The One, you could say, clearly remains at one with himself.
In a time of economic prosperity, Obama could afford to play Eisenhower. But an inflamed electorate is rejecting his calm approach, screaming at the kindly but aloof president who doesn't seem able to provide much succor. It's more obvious than ever that Obama is incapable of displaying much emotion, at least publicly.
Instead, he seems to resemble a kind of supercomputer, carefully answering questions, tucking in his talking points to make it clear that he isn't really deviating from his program, such as it is. Obama largely repeated his bromidic message on the Jon Stewart show, where he announced how darn proud he was of Americans for going about their daily business -- educating their kids, showing up for work, taking their vitamins, flossing, walking the dog.
But the gauzy Norman Rockwell normality he invoked won't persuade the electorate at a time of 10 percent unemployment, the Damocles sword that hangs over his head for 2012, when voters will get a chance to weigh in directly on his presidency, which he has largely placed in the hands of Ivy League meritocrats more concerned with protecting their wealthy coevals than the general public. Which is why Obama's paean to Lawrence Summers on Stewart show rang so clangorously, as he praised the oafish Harvard professor for having performed a heckuva job, a phrase that one might have thought would have been permanently exiled from the presidential lexicon.
Still, an optimistic reading would be that Obama has received his wake-up call, but remains a little groggy. There was no incentive for him to show his hand today. He's waiting for the Republicans to display theirs. But if he's going to rescue his presidency, he will need to start acting presidential instead of like a passive observer of it.