Opinion writer August 8, 2011

In her autobiography, Helen Gahagan Douglas recalled telling President Franklin D. Roosevelt about her visits to the camps of migrant workers. She was especially poignant about the children and their lack of Christmas toys when the president tried to stop her. “Don’t tell me any more, Helen,” FDR told the woman who is probably best known for losing a dirty Senate race to Richard Nixon. She was stunned. Roosevelt was crying. Can anyone imagine Barack Obama doing anything similar?

The answer — at least my answer — is no. And this is quite amazing when you think about it. FDR was a Hudson River squire — down to his cigarette holder and cape. Nonetheless, he could connect to the less fortunate. Obama, in contrast, was raised in the great American muddle, not rich and not poor. Yet when the stock market fell more than 500 points last week and the image that night was of the president whooping it up at his birthday party, the juxtaposition — just bad timing, of course — seemed appropriate. He does not seem to care.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

This quality of Obama’s, this inability to communicate what many of us think he must be feeling, has lately cost many trees their dear lives — reams of essays and op-ed pieces. One of the more interesting ones, by Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, ran in Sunday’s New York Times. It cited Obama’s frequent inability or unwillingness to explain himself or to appear empathetic. All this is true. But Westen’s most salient point was contained in the title: “What Happened to Obama?” The answer: Nothing.

Obama has always been the man he is today. He is the very personification of cognitive dissonance — the gap between what we (especially liberals) expected of the first serious African American presidential candidate and the man he in fact is. He has next to none of the rhetorical qualities of the old-time black politicians. He would eschew the cliche, but he feels little of their pain. In this sense, he has been patronized by liberals who looked at a man and saw black and has been reviled by those who looked at a black man and saw “other.”

Westen faults Obama for his lack of storytelling abilities. But this is because Obama is himself the story. Consider for a moment that Obama’s account of how he had to fight to get medical coverage for his dying mother is not exactly true. The White House’s response to this revelation was grudging silence. It did not dispute the story and it soon died. This was because the Obama story is not what he says but who he is. That remains unchanged, and so the very people who would pummel a Republican for such a mischaracterization were silent about Obama’s. Obama did not deign to reply. He does not have to.

Obama’s communications handicap, his loathing for the pornography of politics, could cost him a second term. In the current New York Review of Books, Andrew Hacker cites the findings of the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato to point out that “an usually high proportion” of Obama’s 2008 majority came from new voters, “notably students and minorities.” If a large number of these Obama voters are no longer elated by the historic novelty of the candidate and/or are disappointed by his performance, turnout will be depressed and Obama will be in peril. The passion of his haters is fearsome; his admirers cannot be tepid.

Only the GOP can save Obama. His political shortcomings cannot be fixed because he is who he is. He can rely on running against a party that has the soul of an actuarial table and will cut programs that the poor and the middle class adore. Whoever that Republican candidate may be, he or she will be stuck in the amber of the early primaries and caucuses where extremism runs rampant and moderates go to die. Neither Jon Huntsman nor Mitt Romney has so far shown the political dexterity to squiggle out of the box that is the Iowa or South Carolina contests.

Obama is the very soul of common sense. As he talks, I nod my head in agreement. Mostly, I think, he has done the right thing. But I doubt anyone will ever recount how he cried in the Oval Office any more than I can recall a soaring passage from a speech. This president got elected because he was cool. He could be defeated because he is cold.

cohenr@washpost.com

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