David Brooks argues that President Obama is doing better than you'd expect in polls given the state of the economy because he possesses a very specific type of manliness: "ESPN masculinity." Brooks' New York Times column reveals that, like so many Washington people, he holds a very curious ideas about "masculinity," though we think his ideas about the culture of ESPN might be unique to the New York Times columnist.
The Atlantic Wire previously noted a strange phenomenon in Washington, D.C.: nerdy male political consultants who write speeches for a living yet somehow become icons of rugged masculinity. By the end of the 2008 election, for example, we knew the height, weight, and Ultimate Fighting techniques of John McCain's aide Steve Schmidt, the "barrel chest," "thick arms," and "poke-'em-in-the-snoot style" of speechwriter Mark Salter. But Brooks' analysis of Obama's manliness is particularly odd. At least McCain's aides were rated macho by using traditional metrics of manliness—bicep circumference or whatever. Brooks says Obama is manly like ESPN—that is, in a post-feminist way. Huh? What?
The key is his post-boomer leadership style... Obama has displayed a kind of ESPN masculinity: postfeminist in his values, but also thoroughly traditional in style — hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent. Administrations are undone by scandal and moments when they look pathetic, but this administration, guarded in all things, has rarely had those moments...
I’d say that Obama is a slight underdog this year: the scuffling economy will grind away at voters. But his leadership style is keeping him afloat. He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.
First of all, this is a very good argument for why millennials need to get involved in politics: to drown out boomers' obsession with masculinity. (On the very same day, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank—unfortunately not a reader of The Atlantic Wire—dubbed Obama the "first female president." His evidence is that Obama gave the commencement address at Barnard College, a girls' school, and he said nice things about girls. Oh, and, "Heck, he even appeared in public wearing a gown.")
But more important, Obama is only like the culture of ESPN in the exact opposite way that Brooks means. Brooks says they're both "restrained," "rarely self-indulgent," and showing old-fashioned "reticence." But only a couple weeks ago, Obama was accused of doing exactly the opposite: "spiking the football" by not letting Americans forget who was in the White House the day Osama bin Laden died. According to some, the president was showing an unseemly bit of celebrating, bragging, credit-taking. "You know one thing about heroes? They don’t brag," Sen. John McCain said.
And where does the idea of "spiking the football" come from? Football. Here is a top 10 list of end zone dancers. This top 10 list was compiled by, you guessed it, ESPN.
Brooks himself commented on whether Obama had spiked the bin Laden football on May 4. "I thought they went a little far," he said on PBS. "I think it's perfectly fine to jump around in the end zone and say hey, I did it." But then the Obama campaign ran a negative ad about it, accusing Mitt Romney of not being up to making the call. "And that's just the normal gangland campaign thinking, taking what is a good moment and then cheapening it with a stupid and cynical political jab."
Perhaps the idea of an ESPN Man was tempting given his success with other demographic coinages: Patio Man, Organization Kid, for example. But Brooks seems more familiar with the shopping habits of uppity liberals than he does the sports channel. In February, he said New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin was "anomalous" because he's "a religious person in professional sports." And Tuesday's ESPN analysis is off in other ways. It's hard to claim the network is "post feminist," or any kind of feminist, given its long history with sexual harassment. In January 2011, for example, it fired broadcaster Ron Franklin for calling a female coworker "sweet baby," plus an expletive. The sports blog Deadspin has a whole category for "ESPN Horndoggery," though the tag is on a single story from November headlined, "Former ESPN VP’s 'I Didn’t Masturbate In Front Of Erin Andrews' Lawsuit Causes Panic In Bristol And L.A."
What's even stranger about Brooks' analysis is that it compares Obama—constantly accused of fooling voters with vacuous platitudes about hope and change—to the only people on earth who are regularly cheered for saying even more vapid things: athletes with extensive media training. It wasn't about winning, I just wanted to go out there and try my best and put my faith in God and see what happens, says every athlete ever interviewed since, well, ever. Even your most hope-and-changey politician doesn't think voters are dumb enough to buy that.