WASHINGTON If Bill Clinton was our first black president, as Toni Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman president.
No, I'm not calling Obama a girlie president. It isn't that he isn't "cowboy" enough, as others have suggested. It is that his approach is feminine in a normative sense. That is, we perceive and appraise him according to cultural expectations and he's not exactly causing anxiety in Alpha-maledom.
We've come a long way gender-wise. But cultural expectations are stickier than oil. Our human selves may want to eliminate gender norms but our lizard brains have a different agenda.
Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms by acting "too masculine" or "not feminine enough." In her fascinating study about "Hating Hillary," Karlyn Kohrs Campbell details the ways our former first lady was chastised for the sin of talking like a lawyer, and by extension, "like a man."
Could Obama be suffering from the inverse?
When Morrison wrote in The New Yorker about Bill Clinton's "blackness," she cited the characteristics he shared with the African-American community: "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
If we accept that premise, even if unseriously proffered, then we could say that Obama displays many tropes of femaleness. I say this in the nicest way. I don't think that doing things a woman's way is evidence of deficiency, but rather suggests an evolutionary achievement.
But we still do have certain cultural expectations, especially related to leadership. When we ask questions about a politician's beliefs or family, we're looking for familiarity, what we can cite as "normal" and therefore reassuring.
Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks. While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, women form circles and talk it out.
The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama's rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to "plug the damn hole," as he put it. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the Gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn't. Instead, he deferred to BP when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.
His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that males are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy - clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence.
I'm not so sure. It would appear that Obama tests Campbell's argument that "nothing prevents" men from appropriating women's style without negative consequences.
Indeed, negative reaction to Obama's speech suggests the opposite. Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.