How Obama Lost his Magic
The erosion of Barack Obama’s popularity has lessons in it for every American who wishes to remain interesting and current, both professionally and personally. The real story in this election is not that America has no jobs, that the economy continues to falter, or that the national debt continues to balloon. While all three are true and, more importantly, Obama has failed to fix them, it is also true that these conditions existed prior to Obama’s election. Yet somehow his personal charisma and captivating charm elevated the electorate. The real story of campaign 2010 is how boring Obama has become. Obama, who had never run anything except a campaign in his entire life, performed an almost unprecedented conjuring act in 2008, getting the electorate to embrace him regardless of the utter absence of managerial skills. They believed not necessarily in Obama’s capacity to fix America’s transient problems but in his ability to focus us on more eternal, upbeat themes like hope, faith, and the future. Yet, this time his very presence seems irritating. A man whose oratory lifted him to earth’s highest office can’t seem to deliver a single uplifting speech. As a connoisseur of great oratory, I used to love hearing Obama’s staccato delivery, perfect timing, and mesmeric self-confidence – the mark of any great speaker – even as I disagreed with him on many of the issues. But Obama’s speeches have now become insufferable, devoid of charisma and personal magnetism. Here are three principal reasons why.
First and foremost, Obama has utterly overexposed himself. As a marriage counselor I always advise husbands and wives that, paradoxically, their marriages require intimacy on the one hand, but barriers and distance on the other. Overexposure, as everyone knows, breeds contempt. The Catholic Church is a master of mystery – from the shadows of its darkly lit gothic cathedrals to its insistence on innumerable divine mysteries – and it is therefore no wonder that it grew to become the world’s largest faith. It is the same reason why, in Judaism, Torah scrolls are secreted in an ark, obscured first by doors, then curtains, then a velvet covering, all of which increases hiddenness and thus reverence. In Hollywood it is specifically those celebrities who understand the need to stay out of the public eye that achieve the greatest longevity in it. Obama, by contrast, has the unfortunate flaw of always needing to be loved. He is forever in our face. From weighing in on every issue right down to the Ground Zero mosque to becoming the President who travelled most in his first two years, Obama lives permanently in the sun. President Bush used to vacation on his ranch where he’d disappear for two weeks. Not so Obama who even on holiday is constantly photographed buying ice cream and shooting hoops. Less is more, Mr. President. Sometimes you have to give the people the opportunity to miss you. Superman knows that his grand entrances depend on being disguised the rest of the time as Clark Kent. But by being forever available, Obama has made himself pedestrian. He went from Messiah to mortal, rock star to bland stone.
Second, Obama has betrayed a lack of substance. When he was more mysterious, Obama encouraged our belief that there was subterranean depth beneath the gleaming surface. Just give the man some time and out will come the magic. But it turned out that vacuous speeches on hope and change were not the thin veneer that concealed great complexity but the very substance itself. I have yet to hear one truly new or exciting idea from Barack Obama since becoming President. President Bush was dismissed as a lightweight. But love it or hate it, the Bush doctrine of preemption and its corollary of exporting democracy to recalcitrant states was a compelling and divisive idea that invited ferocious debate. But with Obama we are back to the tired, yawn-inducing discussions of big versus limited government and whether Keynesian stimulus spending or reducing the national debt is the best way to kindle the economy. I’m bored.
Third, Obama comes across as perfect. The most interesting people are always the most tortured. Bill Clinton clogged his arteries with cheeseburgers and had a relationship with an intern in the Oval office. Yet, he left the presidency with a sixty percent approval rating. America never lost its fascination with this angst-ridden and highly imperfect leader, so unpredictable that we never knew what he’d get up to next. Not so no-drama-Obama who evinces an imperturbable cool utterly bereft of inner trauma. Of course we don’t want the President to cheat on his wife. But show us a tiny demon or two, other than the fact that you light up a cigarette. Demonstrate that you wrestle with moods the way we do when we can’t pay our bills, that you struggle with life’s disappointments like us ordinary mortals. When I was a boy I revered but had no deep interest in our founding fathers because they were portrayed as marble busts who were perfect. It was only later when we discovered how inconsistent the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson could be about human freedom, how depressed and suicidal Lincoln became, and how Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with marriage that these aloof figures were humanized and became so endlessly fascinating. In this sense I believe Obama was poorly served by seemingly being a golden boy who suffered few setbacks. Perhaps it’s time for him to talk about the pain of being an abandoned child who was later orphaned of his mother as well, or the pain of seeing his popularity plummet. Perfect people are boring and monolithic. But flawed human beings who rise above adversity to reach great heights are inspirational. And if the President wants to recapture the public imagination, he would do well to expose a wart or two before the November elections.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network which seeks to use universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.