My liberal friends (that is, nearly all of them) are in a panic after an imposter showed up at the presidential debate last week and pretended to be Barack Obama. They expected an inspired orator, but what they got was Professor Wonk. Mr. Obama’s ratings promptly tanked. As Andrew Sullivan moaned on his blog, “Romney is now kicking the President’s ass.”
Amazingly, a Pew poll shows that almost half of Americans now believe a Mitt Romney presidency would be better for the middle class, even though Mr. Romney’s knowledge of the middle class is completely theoretical. Even women are deserting Mr. Obama in droves. Perhaps, as some of my friends insist, his miserable performance was intentional – part of a master plan that will unfold in due course and vault him back into a decisive lead. Or perhaps, when the heat is really on, the guy just can’t rise to the occasion.
That’s Bob Woodward’s verdict in his new book, The Price of Politics. As he told ABC News’s Diane Sawyer, Mr. Obama is a “moaning, groaning, whining, demanding, threatening and desperate” president who is seriously deficient in people and negotiating skills. He could have cut a grand debt and spending deal with Congress last year – if only he’d been more like Reagan or Clinton. The conventional wisdom is that a deal was undoable because of the intransigence of the other side. But Mr. Woodward is not so sure. “Some people are gonna say he was fighting a brick wall,” he told Ms. Sawyer. “Others will say it’s the President’s job to tear down that brick wall. In this case, he didn’t.”
Mr. Obama is a great big brain. It’s the people part of politics he doesn’t get. He can’t twist arms, charm and schmooze. He hates that stuff. As one American diplomat told The New York Times, “He’s not good with personal relationships.” In his heart, he’s a technocrat. He believes the best way to solve problems is to have extremely smart people analyze the data and come up with the correct policy solutions.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama may be ideological opposites, but temperamentally they’re not so far apart. Mr. Romney doesn’t connect to people very well either. His emotions are as guarded as Fort Knox. His naturalistic performance in last week’s debate was a miracle of acting, achieved after many years of practice. I’m sure he’s a great guy in private, but in public he strikes me as just another country-club Republican (though significantly smarter). If he were a comic-book character, he’d be Plastic Man.
Even more than Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney worships data. He regards the giant, steaming U.S. economic mess as a turnaround situation that he is uniquely qualified to lead. He thinks efficiency is the key to everything. What he doesn’t have, as The New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann argues in a superb profile, is a core philosophy or a set of beliefs. What really animates him is process.
The Wall Street Journal once dubbed Mr. Romney (not kindly) the Consultant in Chief. The trouble is, the United States is not a business, the president is not a CEO, and the nation’s troubles won’t be resolved by a set of PowerPoint presentations.
It would be nice to get the real Barack Obama back – the one who can make people believe he gets their problems, can see the way ahead and can clear a path to it. I’m pretty sure his performance will be a whole lot better from now on. But who’s the real Mr. Obama, anyway? Is it the pragmatic man of action who can get things done? Or is he really Prof. Wonk, armed with all the right ideas but thwarted because those awful people on the other side won’t co-operate with him?
Mr. Woodward doesn’t seem optimistic. “[P]residents work their will – or should work their will – on the important matters of national business,” he wrote in his book. “Obama has not.”
I’ve been writing this column for nearly 13 years. From time to time I’ve made careless mistakes, including some that have come under harsh criticism recently. These lapses are no one’s fault but my own, and I apologize for them. I’ve let down my editors, The Globe and Mail and, especially, my readers.
You learn a lot of lessons at a time like this. I’ve learned that respect and trust are the most important currencies any writer has. I will work harder to maintain them. It’s a privilege to have this job. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you for a long time to come.
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