The conflation of stereotypical masculinity and leadership is nothing new. There’s ample discussion of how it plays out everywhere from the workplace to the political sphere. Perennial non-favorite columnist and pundit David Brooks hit on this theme on Meet the Press yesterday in reference to President Obama’s foreign policy:
And, let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a (I’ll say it crudely) but a manhood problem in the Middle East: Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad, somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair. But certainly in the Middle East, there’s an assumption he’s not tough–
By the way, internally, they fear this. You know, it’s not just Bob Corker saying it, okay, questioning whether the president is being alpha male. That’s essentially what he’s saying: He’s not alpha dog enough. His rhetoric isn’t tough enough. They agree with the policy decisions that they’re making. Nobody is saying– but it is sort of the rhetoric. Internally this is a question.
Brooks’s mealy-mouthed quote attempts some kind of distance from the concept while reinforcing it. Sadly, there are politicians out there spouting this kind of rhetoric. Todd brings up the notion, which I would really like to believe isn’t true, that the White House is concerned about this perception of Obama’s manliness.
The first question this raises is what exactly does this desirable “manhood” that Assad and Putin have that President Obama doesn’t look like?Does it involve riding horses shirtless and going on macho hunting trips? Brutally suppressing dissent and killing civilians? What exactly could President Obama do or say that would make him virile enough to intimidate world leaders?
Ultimately, I’d like someone to please explain to me what testosterone-laden display coming from President Obama would alter world events. The president of the United States is backed up by a military that costs more than the next ten countries’ combined (to the detriment of our education, healthcare, and every other domestic program). We have a ridiculously huge nuclear arsenal that could below up the world several times over. Never mind the fact that President Obama has been killing people with flying robots at a rate that far surpasses George W. Bush’s. Those things haven’t changed Assad’s and Putin’s actions. So what we really need to get to the tipping point is for Obama to put on his alpha dog act?
When it comes down to it, they are making carefully considered geopolitical calculations that aren’t going to be altered by the size of our president’s metaphorical penis. President Obama’s biggest foreign policy successes so far, from the 6-month deal that has slowed down Iran’s nuclear program to the New START treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, have come through diplomacy, not posturing. Negotiating and compromising aren’t feminine acts; they’re just smart and pragmatic.
The debate about whether the president is manly enough is the kind of ludicrous fluff that ends up all over cable news and doesn’t pass intellectual muster. However, we’re highly unlikely to see it go away as we approach a presidential election with a front-running female candidate. Many women have compensated for this by trying to play the alpha male role as well and fit into a predetermined mold of what leadership looks like. It’s time for men and women to recognize this toxic framework for what it is and focus on the real elements of effective leadership.