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The Obama Enigma

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Disconnection from the main currents of American life turns out to be a political disadvantage

‘I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” Barack Obama famously wrote in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope. He wrote as though this “blankness” were not part of a conscious strategy for winning the White House. It was the emptiness of his slogans — “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — that allowed liberals and moderates to consider him a soul mate. Being enigmatic also enabled him to be glamorous. Coolness and distance are not just an Obama strategy; they are also clearly integral to his personality. But they are a strategy.

That strategy has a flipside, which is that his opponents can project unattractive qualities on them. And oh have they tried. At the outer edges of our politics (and sanity) are those who affix to Obama an identity as a Muslim, or an Indonesian. At the beginning of his presidency, mainstream Republicans were wary of attacking the president personally. But that reticence lasted only a few weeks. Since then they have ventured to define him in several ways, all negative. He is weak and indecisive, they have said, especially during the drawn-out debate over his Afghanistan policy. He was acting like an “Ivy League professor,” holding “seminars” instead of acting. At other times his opponents have said he is a machine politician: a practitioner of “the Chicago way.” He is a radical. An elitist. A liar — as Rep. Joe Wilson shouted.

During the 2008 campaign, Karl Rove described him as someone who coasts on his charm rather than doing hard work. A Republican Web ad, similarly, portrayed him as a “celebrity.” Since he got elected, Republicans have labeled him “whiny” whenever he has blamed the nation’s, or his own, troubles on the Bush administration, and “petulant” whenever he has attacked current Republicans. “Vain” and “arrogant” are also words they have attached to him.

Obama’s sharpest mainstream critics have questioned his patriotism. When it comes to “identification with the nation and to all that binds its people together in pride and allegiance,” Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz recently wrote, the president is deficient. “He is the alien in the White House.” As oil has kept spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, even some of the president’s fans have taken to faulting him for showing too much aloofness and not enough emotion. They too believe that he is detached, even if they will not add “from his countrymen.”

Not all of these critiques make sense, or hang together very well. Republicans might try to portray Obama as weak and indecisive toward the country’s enemies and savage with his domestic opponents; but they are not going to convince the public that Obama the man is simultaneously ruthless and weak. A kind of elitism may well be inherent in his political philosophy, but the imputation of snobbery to our first black president, who was raised without a father, is inapt.

On the other hand, some of the charges stick. Obama is in some respects more liberal than previous Democratic presidents, and the evidence his defenders use to deny this fact consists chiefly of tactical retreats. Not fighting for single payer or a public option when Congress would not have passed either proves that he can count votes, not that he is a moderate. He is vain, even as successful politicians go: How many other politicians would say that they are better strategists than their strategist, better speechwriters than their speechwriter, etc.? He is thin-skinned: Has he ever responded to a criticism with self-deprecating humor, or grace? He regularly has an unpresidential air of being put upon. “Lying” is a strong term, but Obama also frequently says things that one would think he knows not to be true — such as that people who like their current health plans will be able to keep them under his reform.

Some of the critiques have clearly gotten to Obama. He told Matt Lauer that he spoke to experts about the oil spill so he would “know whose ass to kick.” He was defending himself against the charge of being academic, unemotional, and passive. It was not, perhaps, the most persuasive thing this president has ever said. (At least he did not promise to create a new Department of Kick-Assery to be staffed by the best and brightest.)

The president was, of course, overcompensating. But he was also condescending. Perhaps all of the encomia to him for being uncommonly thoughtful have gone to his head. He assumes that the public will see the point of reason only if it is translated into terms of brute force.

Obama has long been considered an exceptionally talented politician, but he lacks some of the basic political skills one expects of the breed. He does not have an instinctive feel for the country’s mood, and so he cannot find the right pitch — even, or especially, at moments of high national anxiety. President Clinton’s reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing revived his presidency. This president, following the shootings at Fort Hood, proved incapable of rallying the country. His initial remarks were off-key, coming as they did after praise to some of his staffers and a “shout-out” to a distinguished member of the audience at a previously planned Tribal Nations Conference. Obama then allowed top officials to suggest that sacrificing “diversity” would be a greater tragedy than the massacre.

It can be said in Obama’s defense that at a far more crucial moment, his predecessor delivered a more dismaying performance. President Bush’s remarks on the evening of September 11 were the opposite of reassuring. But Bush righted himself within days at Ground Zero. It is hard to imagine this president grabbing the bullhorn.

In part Obama’s deficiency is a function of the inexperience that his opponents warned against during the 2008 campaign. Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay within a year of his inauguration. A more experienced leader might not have had any illusions about the progress from wish to reality. With more time on Capitol Hill, he might also have seen the dangers of letting the Democratic caucus set the legislative agenda. The president could have gotten a bipartisan stimulus if he had cut in big-spending Republicans — and who can doubt he would be in better shape now if he had?

But the deeper problem is Obama’s disconnection from the major currents of American life. The country has been a commercial republic since its beginning; Obama has had almost no contact with business life. He also grew up in a much more left-wing milieu than any of his predecessors, and than the vast majority of Americans. During the campaign, he remarked that he was glad to be in Henry Wallace’s home county. How many people his age think fondly of Wallace? (Reported Politico: “‘I was amazed that he knew about Henry Wallace,’ said Diane Weiland, the longtime director of the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center, who was in the audience.”)

Americans knew Barack Obama was to the left of most Americans when they elected him. They do not believe that he is a socialist. They do not think — at least yet — that he is untrustworthy. But some charges against leaders have a long fuse. Liberal charges that President Bush was a liar and a fool did not persuade Americans during his first term, but helped to poison his second. Americans may start to think that Obama is arrogant, and that he does not understand them. Those perceptions will be devastating if they also conclude that he’s not up to the job.

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