By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF – The New York Times.
On my blog, a Times reader named Eddie asked about President Obama: “Where is the man I voted for?”
“Does he ever sweat?” Eddie continued. “We’re in desperate times and I don’t see a man who is really affected by it.” He concluded: “We need a committed, passionate person to lead a country … not a Sunday school teacher taking cautious, baby steps.”
Well, it’s time for Mr. Obama to sweat like a racehorse. My feeling is that the country has gone too far on blaming its economic distress on Mr. Obama, failing to give him credit for averting another Great Depression among other achievements. But it seems as if Michelle and I may be the only ones who think that way.
I plumb the national disappointment when I return to my hometown in rural Oregon. One friend who has struggled to get health care and will benefit hugely from Mr. Obama’s health plan is indignant at Mr. Obama — partly because of incorrect scare stories he has heard about the health reform. Others are aghast at the economic stimulus, even though it provided desperately needed jobs. In short, Mr. Obama hasn’t mustered an argument that resonates even among the beneficiaries of his policies.
That’s a failure of politics and salesmanship, but it’s more than that. To a disconcerting number of people I talk to, Mr. Obama comes across as remote, detached, inauthentic and arrogant. All that’s deeply unfair, I think, but it’s the stark reality.
It’s puzzling — candidate Obama could be so inspiring and eloquent, while President Obama has been flat. I wonder if he hasn’t absorbed too much of Mario Cuomo’s dictum: “We campaign in poetry, and we govern in prose.”
Please, Mr. Obama! The prose needn’t be as dry as the Harvard Law Review. And we wouldn’t mind being lifted by an occasional verse of poetry.
If Mr. Obama is going to connect with voters, he must confront the economic crisis emotionally as well as intellectually. He’ll need to focus not only on optimal policies but also on pithy messages. It does no good to have a great product if no one buys it.
Bill Clinton would make a terrific tutor. Despite his current wealth, he came across on the stump as virtually another victim of the recession while arguing lucidly for Democrats as the best redress for that pain. Mr. Clinton is as much a policy wonk as Mr. Obama, but he devotes far more energy to marketing.
Still, don’t write off Mr. Obama too soon. After the 1994 midterm elections repudiated Mr. Clinton, we in the news media wrote ridiculous commentary about how Mr. Clinton might now be “irrelevant.” As Mr. Clinton wrote in his memoir, “After the 1994 elections, I had been ridiculed as an irrelevant figure, destined for defeat in 1996.”
Didn’t work out that way, did it?
Likewise, even F.D.R. suffered a severe midterm defeat in 1938. “The New Deal has been halted,” The New York Times declared at the time. But Roosevelt learned his lessons and won two more presidential elections after that, cementing his place in history.
My hunch is that Mr. Obama is also capable of learning lessons and growing as a president. And the Republican-majority House will offer a fine target for improved messaging — especially if its first priority will be to worsen the budget deficit by cutting taxes for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
Or consider Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, freshly re-elected and the godfather of the Senate’s Tea Party faction. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Mr. DeMint advises new Tea Party members of Congress not to be co-opted and adds: “Put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.”
That’s a fight that should end with a knockout for Mr. Obama. Over the years, Mr. DeMint has spoken out against not only gay teachers but also female teachers who have sex before marriage. After a rally on Oct. 1, the Spartanburg, S.C., newspaper paraphrased him: “An unmarried woman who’s sleeping with her boyfriend — she shouldn’t be in the classroom.”
Mr. DeMint later clarified that this is an issue best left for local school boards. But I think most Americans seek a moral leadership that isn’t about wagging fingers at women who have sex with boyfriends. The moral imperative should be getting Americans jobs, decent schools, access to doctors and a measure of opportunity.
Mr. Obama has a far better product to sell than Tea Partiers like Mr. DeMint. But Mr. Obama needs to connect better with American voters. He needs to lose the cool and start sweating — and slugging.
If he can do that, and if the economy comes back over the next couple of years, he can still be remembered as one of our great presidents. One who served two terms.