Alone in a Crowd

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Weisberg

Why Obama's cool comes off as cold.

In electing a Republican senator, the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts were surely voicing their unhappiness over many things: unemployment, bank bailouts, the health-care plan Congress was on the verge of passing, and the expansion of government in general. But if you believe the polls, they were also expressing a degree of discontent, echoed around the country, with the president himself. Few people hate Barack Obama the way many did both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But Middle America isn't feeling the love, and it may be for reasons that have more to do with his temperament than his policies.

The way Obama connects to people is the opposite of a Clinton, a Bush, or a Ronald Reagan. Those presidents were all relaters. They bonded with people based on common feelings, experiences, and interests. Reagan did this best through the medium of television. Bush did it best in person. Clinton could do it blindfolded and hanging upside down. For all three, connecting emotionally was part and parcel of their political skill. As a result, people tended to love them or hate them, without much neutral ground in between.

Obama's coolness and detachment put him in a different category that includes Lincoln (on the positive side) and Jimmy Carter (on the negative). His relationship with the world is primarily analytical rather than intuitive or emotional. As he acknowledged in his interview with George Stephanopoulos the day after Scott Brown's victory, his tendency to focus on substance can make him seem remote and technocratic. So while many people deeply admire him, few come away from any encounter feeling closer to him. He's not warm, loyal, or deeply involved with others. His most fervent enthusiasts tend to express affection more for the ideas he represents--America transcending its racial history, a fairer society, rational decision making--than for the man himself.

A sense of separateness from other people, organizations, and causes runs through Obama's biography. In Chicago, where I grew up, one learns to quickly place people in relation to the city's big political narrative. There was the old ethnically based Daley machine. There were the reform liberals (including my parents and their friends) who challenged it. …