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Who is Barack Obama?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On Sunday, both The Post and the New York Times assembled more than 20 savants and asked them, as the Times put it, "How Can Obama Rebound?" Good question. Not only do six out of 10 voters "lack faith in the president to make the right decisions for the country," according to a Post-ABC News poll, but Barack Obama does not even get credit for the right decisions he's made. The bank bailout averted a financial crackup and the stimulus package pulled the economy back from the abyss. Along with reform of the financial industry and health care, these are considerable achievements. Only the voters disagree.

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Why? Some of the answers are apparent. The economy remains sluggish and unemployment remains high. The effects of the health-care act have yet to be felt and the ink is hardly dry on financial reform. Until these measures prove popular, they can be mischaracterized by Republicans and other evil-doers. As for the economy, not letting things get worse is not the same as making them better. If you're out of work, it hardly cheers you that the recession stopped at your house and spared the guy next door. It's your job that matters.

So what can be done about all this? The experts in the most mainstream of the mainstream media brimmed with ideas. "New thinking" could save the day, says David Frum, and a revived war on cancer would work wonders, says Elizabeth Edwards. The Democratic strategist Catherine A. "Kiki" McLean says Obama should focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs," while Matthew Dowd, he of ABC News, suggests the president "get off the partisan campaign trail." Donna Brazile urges Obama to step up his rhetoric, and Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, favors "a campaign to promote private-sector innovation." Mark Penn proposes doubling the size of the space program. Edward Rollins thinks Obama would do better if he stopped blaming his predecessor for what ails the country, and Robert Shrum opines that "Obama needs only to be himself." (What's that?)

All these are nifty suggestions, and some could make a really exciting panel discussion at Brookings. But the fallacy in all of them is apparent when -- as always happens -- Obama is likened to Ronald Reagan. (Shrum does this.) The similarities are superficial, and foremost among them is the fact that Reagan too had dismal numbers at this state of his presidency -- a consequence of a steep recession. In fact, the Republicans lost House seats in the 1982 midterm elections, just as the Democrats are fated to do, according to every conceivable political seer. Reagan, of course, went on to win reelection by a landslide and has since become a Mount Rushmorian figure. Break out the chisels.

The comparison to Reagan may give Obama cheer, but it is not really apt. For even in Reagan's darkest days when, according to Gallup, six out of 10 Americans reported that they did not like the job he was doing, an astounding six in 10 nevertheless said they liked the man himself. He was, of course, phenomenally charming, authentic and schooled at countless soundstages in appearing that way. Just as important, the public had faith in the consistency of his principles, agree or not. This was the Reagan Paradox and it helped lift his presidency.

No one is accusing Obama of being likable. He is not unlikable, but he lacks Reagan's (or Bill Clinton's) warmth. What's more, his career has been brief. He led no movement, was spokesman for no ideology and campaigned like a Nike sneaker -- change instead of swoosh. He seems distant. No Irish jokes from him. For the average voter, he casts no shadow.

Reagan, by contrast, had been around forever. He was not defined solely by gauzy campaign ads but by countless speeches, two contentious and highly controversial terms as California governor, and a previous race for the presidency. There was never a question about who Reagan was and what he stood for. Not so Obama. About all he shares with Reagan at this point are low ratings.

What has come to be called the Obama Paradox is not a paradox at all. Voters lack faith in him making the right economic decisions because, as far as they're concerned, he hasn't. He went for health-care reform, not jobs. He supported the public option, then he didn't. He's been cold to Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu and then all over him like a cheap suit. Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting.

cohenr@washpost.com


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