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As midterms loom, Obama has lost his rhetorical touch

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, September 10, 2010

Even Democrats who agree with President Obama's ideology, respect his tenacity and admire his deliberative manner have begun to whisper: Maybe he isn't a very good politician. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is genetically incapable of whispering, puts it bluntly: "Ironically, the best communicator I ever saw in a campaign has turned out to be not so good at getting out the message as president."

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It is a remarkable reversal. Obama's rise from the Illinois legislature to the presidency in four years was a real-deal, honest-to-goodness political phenomenon. I spent some time on the campaign trail with Obama during the primaries, coming away impressed by his earnestness, his touch of formality, his rhetorical ambitions -- here a little Kennedy, there a little King. He consistently met the highest objective of an orator, both capturing and shaping the public mood.

It is now difficult to remember much of what he said. Even my notes had mainly to do with his style. But his message had something to do with unity, healing and national purpose. The idiom was compelling. The agenda was, well, beside the point. This image emerged unsullied from a battle with the Clinton machine. Democrats were glad to be along for the ride on the gilded chariot of Obama's destiny.

Compare this appeal to Obama's Labor Day remarks in Milwaukee intended to kick off the midterm campaign. Obama was self-pitying: "They talk about me like a dog." Self-absorbed: "I spent some time, as I often do, with our soldiers and our veterans." Snappish: "If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say no." Pedestrian: "Their slogan is 'No we can't.' Nope, no, no, no." Humorless. Negative. And determined to drive metaphors on and on until they expire from exhaustion. The economic car in the ditch gets pulled out while someone sips a Slurpee, but it (the car, not the Slurpee) has dents and mud on it and special interests are somehow riding shotgun, and the transmission gets put in various positions, and if the other guys hits the gas pedal again, the car might go back into the ditch (unless, I suppose, it is in reverse), so we can't give them the keys because they don't know how to drive.

This criticism is a little (only a little) unfair. If unemployment were at 6 percent instead of 9.6 percent, the car metaphor would seem positively Lincolnian. Unfavorable events can make any communicator look bad.

But Obama's problem is deeper than his economic challenges. His policies as president -- particularly the creation of a health entitlement and his Rooseveltian emphasis on federal spending to create public-sector jobs -- have reopened and widened the main partisan division in American political life. Every public issue has become a harsh, entirely predictable debate about the size and role of government. Obama's initiatives, it turns out, could only be considered moderate on the skewed ideological scale of the Democratic Party. They are not only unpopular; they have made it impossible for him to maintain the pretense of being a unifying, healing, once-in-a-generation leader. It is the agenda that undermined the idiom.

With that image stripped away, Americans found Obama to be a somber, thoughtful, touchy, professorial, conventionally liberal political figure. Some like the demythologized Obama; others do not. But this profile would not be exceptional or remarkable in any town boasting a university faculty lounge. And it does not make Obama a particularly compelling party leader in a difficult midterm election. One of the best communicators I ever saw in a campaign became an ineffective messenger as president -- precisely because the appeal that made him a phenomenon is no longer credible.

So all the president's handlers try anything that might work. In Milwaukee, Obama was the feisty street fighter with a union card. But, without humor, his jabs seemed sour and mocking. In Cleveland, Obama personalized the economic argument by repeatedly attacking House Minority Leader John Boehner -- as though Americans have any idea who this tanned and sinister figure might be. The president added some detail about his grandparents' economic struggles. But few political figures look less comfortable with their heart on their sleeve. "At this point," says Rendell, "there's nothing to lose, so let it all roll." But weeks before the November election, Obama the communicator seems lost.

His challenge reaches beyond rhetoric and beyond the midterm elections: finding not only a new agenda but a new persona.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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