Remember when President Barack Obama was likable? Once upon a time the public viewed the incumbent more favorably than his challenger by large margins. These days Obama’s favorable and unfavorable ratings are similar to Mitt Romney’s. The televised debates have unveiled the current administration as alternately listless, manic, angry, soporific, rude, bullying, aloof, and thin-skinned. Americans who have just begun to tune into the election are seeing the president unmediated. They no longer are looking at him through the scrim of fawning press, majestic settings, and roaring crowds. And they are discovering that Obama is not so likable at all. He is actually something of a jerk.
Those who read coverage of the Obama administration closely will have known this for a long time: The president is cold, abstract, prickly, and insular. His brand of cerebral partisanship is better suited for liberal blogging than for leading the free world. He doesn’t enjoy interacting with strangers or even with associates outside his immediate clique. He has few close friends. He relies on about half a dozen senior advisers. His impromptu speech is given to cutting, sarcastic remarks.
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Put him in front of an adoring and obsequious audience and he will be charming and suave. But the real Obama is revealed the second you remove the klieg lights. This isn’t a guy who will spend his post-presidency more or less running the Democratic Party, a la President Bill Clinton. Obama will spend his retirement as a solitary member of the irritable left, receiving honorary degrees, appearing on MSNBC, and scribbling for Salon.
The president’s unsociability is one of those obvious facts that are conveniently overlooked. Earlier this week Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, caused a mini-controversy when New York magazine quoted her saying, "Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people." Tanden, who has worked for Obama, later "clarified" her remarks. What she meant to say, she tweeted, was that Obama "is a private person." Note, however, that one can be a private person and still not "like people." Tanden did not really take back her words. Nor should she. Her initial comments were factual and honest.
A "Democrat deeply familiar" with the Clinton-Obama relationship said pretty much the same thing to Ryan Lizza a few months ago: "Obama doesn’t really like very many people." A Chicago Democratic donor told Jane Mayer this summer, "He’s not the kind of guy I would go out and have a beer with." "One United States diplomat" told Helene Cooper of the New York Times in September that Obama is "not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him." That paper’s story on Valerie Jarrett, the president’s closest aide, describes Obama as "introverted" and his social circle as "small." Michael Lewis’s profile of Obama shows a loner who broods over his decisions, spends time reading and writing and playing basketball with a tightly knit group, and says his biggest difficulty as president is "faking emotion." His media puppets admit that the president is an emotionless "Spock."
This combination of arrogance and detachment has been a political problem. Obama has paid a price whenever his unlikable personality has emerged in unscripted moments. There was his promise to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in the first year of his presidency. There was the time when he told Hillary Clinton that she was "likable enough." There was his stubborn insistence to raise taxes on capital gains and dividends even though it would raise less revenue. There was his explanation that the white working class didn’t like him because "they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them."
There was his remark that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" when they arrested a Harvard professor. There was his attack on Scott Brown for driving a pickup truck; his snide retort to John McCain that "the election’s over"; and his jibe that "shovel ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected" (which provoked laughter from his "jobs council"). This year we’ve heard Obama say "the private sector is doing fine," that he’s "always struck by people who think, it must be because I was just so smart" that they’ve been successful, and that the attacks on our embassies across the Great Middle East were "bumps in the road" to Arab democracy. When Obama says what’s on his mind, his political team runs for the hills.
The debates have made the president’s dilemma worse. Obama has not masked his prideful contempt for Romney. He "told friends that he respected Mr. Romney’s intellect," the Times reported, "but had come to view his rival as a less formidable adversary as he learned more about him from reading research books and watching his campaign." He went into the first debate in Denver thinking he would end the race on October 3.
But a huge audience watched as Romney dissected the last four years and Obama responded with a mix of condescension and apathy. The president seemed always to be smirking and looking down at his notes. He barely could mount a defense of his record. He returned again and again to his vision of a fair America. But this was not enough even for his most slavish supporters. Andrew Sullivan called him "effete." Michael Tomasky asked, "Does Obama even want to win the election?"
The first debate inaugurated a shift in the race toward Romney that hasn’t abated. And the left drew exactly the wrong lesson from it. The left believed Obama had failed because he was insufficiently rude, and the Obama campaign seems to have agreed with them. But that meant Obama was trapped. He had to be more combative, but he also had to retain his likability. Doing both was not an option. Obama chose combat, in keeping with his long-run campaign strategy of maximizing turnout among Democratic Party client groups.
So we got a Joe Biden who spoke under his breath, interrupted Paul Ryan at every turn, raised his voice, gesticulated grandly, cackled during discussions of the Iranian nuclear program, and grinned so wildly that he looked like he was channeling Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker. We got an Obama who was more engaged but also came across as angry and heated and ready to challenge Romney to a duel. We got a Democratic ticket that, per Chris Matthews’s suggestion, looks like it is auditioning to replace the Cycle on MSNBC.
Obama's anti-Romney spirit may make for a more disagreeable and somewhat more interesting debate. Television ratings benefit. But how does it solve the weak economic recovery? How does it reassure voters looking for solutions on jobs, health care, the deficit, and energy? How does it improve the president’s image, or restore his poll numbers?
The cliché is that the more likable candidate usually wins the election. Morris Fiorina, one of my favorite political scientists, says that isn’t actually the case. Maybe. What we know for sure is what Washington has known all along: Obama doesn’t like people.
And increasingly, people don’t like him.