During a Christmas visit to a Marine barracks in Hawaii, President Barack Obama posed for photographs while holding a baby. It was a gamble that paid off. The baby did not cry, squirm or puke but playfully put his tiny hand into the president’s mouth.
Talk about a vote of confidence.
Obama’s ability to enchant and calm infants has earned him a reputation as “baby whisperer in chief.” This is no small skill. Convey an uncomfortable vibe while holding a baby, and the baby could put on a face that makes a politician look like a fool.
When President George W. Bush picked up an infant during a trip to Germany in 2006, the baby screamed bloody murder. Bush was photographed looking like Popeye at wits’ end over a bawling Swee’Pea. Cartoonists had a field day, putting word bubbles over the infant’s screaming head that said things like “Please, Mr. Bush, don’t send me to Iraq.”
Not surprisingly, some hard-core right-wingers resent that Obama is good at baby holding. The only complaint they can come up with, however, is that he is too soft and maternal. They would like to see one of the babies ruin his photo ops by throwing up on him or soiling their diapers.
But therein lies the real brilliance of Obama’s whispering skill: The kind of quiet he produces amplifies the incessant carping and backbiting of his opponents. Not a whimper of a challenge to Obama from his own party, just the sound and fury of Republican presidential hopefuls, signifying nothing.
Black America used to be pretty grumpy, too. As recently as September, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 58 percent of black voters held a “strongly favorable” view of Obama, down from 83 percent five months earlier.
Enter the whisperer in chief.
“Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop crying,” Obama said during a speech at the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner in the District a few days after the poll came out.
OK, so it wasn’t exactly a whisper. But it worked. Obama’s approval rating among blacks quickly went up to 95 percent, pretty much where it was when he was voted into office as the nation’s first black president in 2008.
Coo, baby, coo.
At an event on the White House lawn in June, a baby whom first lady Michelle Obama was holding started to cry. The president turned to the infant and asked, “You OK, baby?” He leaned in closer and seemed to have heard through the wailing a syllable and a tone which he deciphered as: “Awww nawww.”
The baby had spoken; Obama had heard the cry. And as soon as Michelle handed the child over to him, the crying stopped. The audience was awestruck but then broke into laughter when Obama gave his wife one of those “let me show you how it’s done” kind of looks.
“A lot of people talk about Obama in the political area as being too calm, but little attention is paid to his calming influence,” said Melinda Blau, a journalist who, with the late Tracy Hogg, wrote the book “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect and Communicate With Your Baby.”
Blau and I chatted by phone while looking at photographs of Obama holding babies, which are posted on the Web site yeswecanholdbabies.wordpress.com.
“I know Obama is politically savvy, but what I’m seeing goes beyond all of that,” Blau said. “He is showing a capacity for deep caring, listening and respect, and the response from the babies shows that it is genuine and not fake, more than a photo op.”
As for the rest of Obama’s progressive supporters, many are still burping up their discontents. And none will be completely satisfied until Obama comes up with a good bedtime story. Tell us again, Mr. President, the one about why we should vote for you.
Obama could start by reading from the transcript of what retiring Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Dec. 18 on ABC News’ “This Week With Christiane Amanpour”:
“I understand the appeal of tax cuts, but in my years of government, I have never seen a tax cut put out a fire. I have never seen a tax cut build a bridge or clean up a toxic atmosphere.”
Dr. Seuss couldn’t have said it better.
Courtland Milloy wrote this for The Washington Post.