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Obama, Lost at the Chalkboard

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Let's go back to that "teachable moment." It was proclaimed by Barack Obama after he said that police in Cambridge, Mass., had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. for essentially being black in his own house. It has been a month now, and the one sure thing we have learned in this extended teachable moment is about Obama himself. He can't teach.

This is clear when it comes to two of the major challenges confronting his administration: health-care reform and the war in Afghanistan. Both are losing popular support. Increasingly, Americans are becoming convinced that Afghanistan will cost lots of lives and that health-care reform will cost lots of money -- and both will have paltry payoffs or none at all. Teacher, please explain.

Obama cannot -- or, to be both fair and precise, he has not been able to. This is because of an insufficiency I have noted previously -- his distinct coolness, an above-the-fray mien that does not communicate empathy. If you recall, for instance, that teachable moment about Gates, you will remember it was about racial profiling and such. Commentators galore jumped right in and in some cases -- Glenn Beck comes to mind -- proved they were whores for controversy, but Obama stayed above the fray. Class was in session but he was not.

Pity. For this teachable moment, Obama might have recalled an incident out of his own past when, perchance, he was racially profiled -- stopped, frisked or something for being a black man, particularly a young black man. He might have recounted an anecdote that could have offered us all a glimmer of what it is like to wear your skin color -- but not your two Ivy League degrees, book contract, etc. -- on your face so that you feel the opprobrium and suspicion of police officers and the averted glance of trembling white ladies. No. He did nothing of the sort.

So Obama did not teach about the Gates incident, and he is not teaching about health insurance. Some of his trouble is procedural -- turning over health-care reform to Congress, a parliamentary Okefenokee Swamp in which reform bogs down, finally rots and emits noxious gases. Some of this has to do with the unavoidable complexity of any legislation. But some of it has to do with the president's inability to simply say what he wants and why that's good for us. The failure here is twofold: the message and the messenger.

The message will be improved. The administration, after all, is still new and still learning. The messenger, though, is a problem of a different order that was obscured during the presidential campaign by the historic uniqueness of the candidate and the sheer good fortune to follow George W. Bush and run against the hapless John McCain. It is just a slight exaggeration to say that any Democrat could have won, but it exaggerates nothing to say that Obama's message of "change" was most eloquently expressed in the corporeal essence of the candidate himself. There had been nothing like him in all our history.

In the end, the success of the health-care reform effort will come down to trust. A lesson of the raucous town-hall meetings is the sense of panic, the fear that this man in the White House does not appreciate the anxiety that middle-class Americans feel about health care -- whether they will keep what they have, whether they will have enough or whether their last years will be spent in painful, degrading poverty. Those, ironically, are precisely the reasons for reform in the first place and why Obama has staked so much on it. He is a reformer -- he's just not a salesman.

More and more Obama is being likened to Lyndon Johnson, with Afghanistan becoming his Vietnam. Maybe. But the better analogy is to Jimmy Carter, particularly the president analyzed by James Fallows in a 1979 Atlantic magazine article, "The Passionless Presidency." "The central idea of the Carter administration is Jimmy Carter himself," Fallows wrote. And what is the central idea of the Obama presidency? It is change. And what is that? It is Obama himself.

Unlike Carter, Obama brims with energy and charm. His brilliance is not brittle but supple. Yet, another teachable moment is upon him and he seems lost. The country needs health-care reform and success in Afghanistan, and both efforts are going in the wrong direction. The message needs to be fixed, and so, with some tough introspection, does the man.

cohenr@washpost.com


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