Seeing our president hanging out at podiums in Charlotte and now Denver, his famous competitiveness nowhere to be seen, has left me with a question I wish I didn’t have: Does Barack Obama really want to be president?
His campaign team wants it, yes, and his party, and his wife. But if meeting donors and lawmakers is such a drag, and campaigning such a chore, maybe he’d rather be home in Chicago, spending time with his family and small circle of close friends. At work, only his students would press him for answers. And at parties, he could indulge his kindhearted inclination to seek out the oldest person in the room and settle in to hear his stories…
Only, in love, in work, and in politics, desire is at least as important as affinity; you actually have to want it, and show that that’s the case.
Physically, he looked shamefaced, even guilty. Whenever Romney made some point, he would drop his head, purse his lips, and nod, like a prisoner in the dock admitting to some shabby crime…
Instead, Obama signaled that he wants out. His diehard supporters are already trying to wave away this weirdly awful, unengaged performance as just his latest turn of Zen mastery, but that dog won’t hunt. They should steel themselves for more shocking displays of indifference over the next month on the part of this strangely diffident individual. It’s quite possible that he means what he says, and he really can’t wait to become an ex-president.
For all of his fumblings, Mitt Romney by contrast very much wants to be president, and if Barack Obama has decided to open the door to the White House, Romney will stroll on through.
Watching the president grimace his way through the restrained back-and-forth reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a friend in Democratic politics, who posited that Mr. Obama simply doesn’t love being president. Not that he doesn’t want the job or believe he should have it, or that its challenges don’t give him plenty of cause for stress or solemnity — just that he doesn’t appear to actually enjoy the daily business of running the country.
Mostly, what Mr. Obama seems to get no joy from, and what debates really demand of you, is the opportunity to persuade people that you’re right, by making complex arguments sound simple and self-evident. This is why Bill Clinton’s convention speech stood out as it did — because it reminded everyone of how powerful an enthusiastic presidential explanation can be…
Mr. Obama’s goal, it seems, was to indicate his continued willingness to serve in a job he believes he can do better than the other guy, but that doesn’t really seem to energize or enliven him. That’s a problem, and not only for the duration of the campaign.
I said it after the convention speech and I’ll say it again: If there’s something that seems shut down in our once ebulliently optimistic president, it most likely has to do with the wars. Obama is a naturally empathic individual, whose diverse, mobile, international background made him unusually able when it came to assessing new social situations and reading more than people say. Some observers have speculated that Obama needs a crowd, energy he can draw from. But he had that aplenty in Charlotte, and it barely helped. I suspect a more prosaic explanation: A person of his temperament cannot maintain the same open demeanor when he’s dealing with war and death all the time. As, we must recall, Obama has been for years now. If Obama seems shut down, perhaps it is because he has to be to be who he is and do the job he needs to do day in and day out. If his heart didn’t seem in it last night, I wonder if it’s not in part because the last thing he needs to consider in his work on a day-to-day basis is his heart. It’s a long way from being a community organizer, civil-rights lawyer and anti-war state senator to running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat.
It’s the only explanation I can come up with for why there is so much self-abnegation in Obama’s campaigning.
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.
Left unmentioned was the fact that the liberals were criticizing Obama for the very aspects of his personality they so often celebrate. After the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 Matthews praised this “cold-blooded” president, whom he now excoriates for aloofness and apathy. Sullivan famously argued that Obama’s high-mindedness would take the country beyond the cultural fights of the Baby Boom generation, but when Obama took a high-minded approach in his closing statement Wednesday night, and floated above the debate at 30,000 feet, Sullivan called it “f—ing sad, confused, and lame.” For years liberals have praised Obama’s intellect, fluency, demeanor, and dignity—qualities they now worry might be too “professorial” for the debate-watching public.
Did the scales just fall from their eyes? Had they really not considered the possibility that Obama might not be as formidable, or as “likable,” as they had thought? Or had they been so blinded by their preconceived notions about the man, so devoted to the idea that his opponents are nothing more than fundamentalist servants of Moloch, that they could not imagine what would happen when he encountered, face-to-face, a clever, smart, cogent, and determined opponent?