Sunday, August 07, 2011

Obama, Non-Charmer

I don't suppose you can honestly say that they are just tracking Underbelly (link, link, linklink), but everybody seems to be out after the President this weekend, in search of the vanished mojo.  First, Drew Westen un the NYT, and right now number three on my Times most emailed list:
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. ...

A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it. 
And here's Virginia Postrel with an intriguing possible explanation:
[T]the enthusiasm of his 2008 campaign has certainly vanished.

What happened? In 2008, after all, not just political pundits and regular folks were expecting big things of Obama. So were certified leadership gurus....

There was only one problem. Obama wasn’t charismatic. He was glamorous -- powerfully, persuasively, seductively so. ...

What’s the difference? Charisma moves the audience to share a leader’s vision. Glamour, on the other hand, inspires the audience to project its own desires onto the leader (or movie star or tropical resort or new car): to see in the glamorous object a symbol of escape and transformation that makes the ideal feel attainable. The meaning of glamour, in other words, lies entirely in the audience’s mind.

That was certainly true of Obama as a candidate. He attracted supporters who not only disagreed with his stated positions but, what is much rarer, believed that he did, too....

Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combined youth, vigor and good looks with a vague promise of political change. Like Kennedy, Obama was both charming and self-contained. Kennedy’s wealth set him apart, but Obama’s mystery stemmed from his exotic background -- an upbringing and ethnicity that defied conventional categories and distanced him from humdrum American life. Obama was glamorous because he was different, and his differences mirrored his audience’s aspirations for the country. ...

If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why his supporters are so angry. He should be able to win them over. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, then his problems aren’t surprising.

With glamour, any specific action that stands outside the fantasy breaks the spell, alienating supporters who disagree. Even trying to remain above the fray, as Obama often does, infuriates those who want a fighter.

A well-established sales tool, glamour is a tremendous asset if you’re running for office. But once you have to govern, it’s a problem. Although charisma can continue to inspire, glamour is guaranteed to disillusion. The only thing surprising about Obama’s predicament is how few people expected it..
And finally, a shrewd word from Michael Froomkin:
Part of President Obama’s problem is that his opponents do not fear him, and he too oftenseems to want to be loved. Have we read a single story of President Obama wreaking vengeance on a political enemy? Or even threatening it?

Note that the people who do fear Obama, because they think he’s a Black radical Kenyan socialist Muslim Black Panther palling around with terrorists do not count, for they only fear demons of their own making, or of their masters’ making.

Note also that I do not count the many stories of Obama attacking (google “hippie punching” if you don’t know what I mean) and betraying on his liberal supporters (think Elizabeth Warren or the public option or the nonexistent jobs bill) for, despite what he seems to think, those are not his enemies.
They can't all be saying the same thing, right? No, I suppose not. In particular, I think Postrel(at least if you read the whole thing) comes closer to believing that Obama couldn't possibly be a charisma president: listen to him closely and you'd reject what he says. This certainly isn't Westen's point, nor Froomkin's. But in general, they are on the same page: lost or forever absent, there's a mojo deficit there tht is crippling the presidency at least now, and perhaps permanently.

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