Politics & Policy

The Undoing of Storybook Man

Obama’s weaknesses are exposed when he encounters a determined opponent.

It was the Puss in Boots eyes.

If you’ve seen the Shrek movies or the spin-off cartoon starring the storybook cat voiced by Antonio Banderas, you know what I’m talking about. Whenever Puss in Boots really needs something from someone, he flashes these enormous kitten eyes that melt anyone in their path. Whenever my daughter really wants something, she tries to lay them on me, and I have to say, “Stop trying to give me the Puss in Boots eyes . . . you can’t have chocolate cake for dinner.”

I knew Barack Obama was miserable when he tried to give debate moderator Jim Lehrer the Puss in Boots eyes. “You may want to move on to another topic,” Obama implored Lehrer, a bit like a motorcycle thief begging a cop to take him into custody rather than let him stay with the surly biker gang that caught him.

I expected Romney to beat expectations and win the debate (though I had no clue how decisive his victory would be), not because I thought Romney was such a fantastic debater, but because Obama is the single most overrated politician of my lifetime.

That’s not to say he’s a bad politician. He’s not. He’s fine, even pretty good. But he’s not the master so many people claim he is. 

The Irish have a saying: “Hunger makes the best sauce.” And it’s true. If you’re hungry enough, roadkill will make for a king’s feast. Liberals were so hungry for someone like Obama, he seemed like so much more than he really was.

You could hear indications of this fact in the way some of the more crotchety members of the Democratic establishment described Obama.

Senator Harry Reid was blown away by the potential of this “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

In 2007, Joe Biden said of his then-opponent, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He added: “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Storybook Man, indeed.

While such comments could be described as racially insensitive, they weren’t necessarily racist. They simply reflected the fact that even cynical Democrats understood that the Democratic party — and, to be fair, much of the country generally — craved a mainstream black presidential candidate. Jesse Jackson was too polarizing, some would say too embarrassing, for the job. Obama, meanwhile, was “storybook, man.”

The problem for Obama was that he always believed the most ludicrous version of Storybook Man. He once told a reporter, “You know, I actually believe my own [bovine excrement].”

For a guy who supposedly gives wonderful speeches, he rarely persuades the unpersuaded or inspires those he didn’t already have at “hello.” That’s partly the fault of his speechwriters, who always did him the disservice of producing the kind of pedantic and clichéd boilerplate that Obama mistook for soaring oratory. He thought he smashed through the Democratic primaries like a battering ram through concrete when he mostly pushed on open doors.

As president, he’s convinced himself that he is a policy wonk with a deeper understanding of the machinery of government and the mysteries of the economy than even his advisers. And yet he had to learn on the job that “shovel-ready jobs” were magic beans sold to him by party hacks hungry for pork. He bought a stimulus that only stimulated political cronies. In the debate, he touted windmills and solar power as the energy sources of the future as if he still honestly believed that.

The media’s infatuation with Obama and/or their contempt for his critics only served to reinforce his delusions. When the press laughs at all of your jokes and takes your glib excuses as profound insights, the inevitable result is a kind of flabby narcissism. Kings can be forgiven for thinking they are the greatest poets when the court weeps at their clunky limericks.

The Obama who delivered a shockingly lackluster convention speech last month is the same man who walked into that Denver stadium in 2008 to rapturous approval. The man who lost the debate Wednesday night is the same man who never managed to make Obamacare popular after more than 50 speeches and pronouncements on it in his first year.

The key difference now is that the hunger for Obama has been replaced with the indigestion that follows after four unimpressive years in office. In sales, they say you sell the sizzle, not the steak. In 2008, the man was all sizzle, and the ravenous throng was sold. Now he must sell the steak itself, and it’s full of gristle, fat, and bone. He may yet still close the deal, but only if people fall for his Puss in Boots eyes.

 — Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book The Tyranny of ClichésYou can write to him at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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