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So, WHAT’S to like? That question danced around my head during Monday night’s debate. Every time President Obama mocked, personally attacked and sneered at Mitt Romney, I kept wondering why so many Americans say they like Obama even as they don’t like his policies.
How do you like a president who shows utter contempt for his opponent? How do you like a president who responds to criticism of his record with a snide blast at his opponent’s personal wealth?
The questions would be easier to answer if the debate were an exception. But it wasn’t. Numerous reports from the White House recently have Obama openly expressing raw “disdain” for Romney.
Worse, the Romney treatment is no exception, either. “Disdain” describes the feelings Obama expressed about many others during his term. His slams on opponents and critics as “greedy” and “unpatriotic” and “dishonest” cross a line most politicians don’t.
It’s odd behavior for a president, or anybody in public life. Even professional football players, who use physical pain to intimidate opponents, usually come away expressing mutual respect when the dust settles.
Is presidential politics more blood sport than the NFL? Or is Barack Obama just less respectful than your average jock?
The issue is not academic, with most polls showing Obama enjoying a big margin on “likability.” A July survey gave him a 60-30 edge on that angle, though recent ones show Romney has erased the gap because of the debates.
With his economic record an albatross, the likability factor helped to keep Obama ahead or tied in a race he should be losing. The problem for him now is that the more America gets to know him, the less it likes him.
Likability, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and with Obama, it requires distance. Up close and personal, he gives a very different vibe. There, the mask comes off to reveal the contempt we saw in the debate.
Neera Tanden, a former top aide, recently told New York magazine that the president is “not close to almost anyone,” adding, “It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”
Repeat: “He really doesn’t like people.”
Others who have worked with Obama reached similar conclusions. “He doesn’t listen to anyone,” a former top economic aide told a friend. Outsiders invited to meet with him concluded it was all for show, he was not interested in what they had to say.
That he rarely talks to congressional leaders, including fellow Democrats, has become such a staple of Washington that it has ceased to be news. Our president apparently believes it is beneath him to consult or get into the details of legislation.
Then again, he doesn’t talk to members of his Cabinet much either, so he’s consistent in his isolation. He reportedly watched last year’s Super Bowl alone.
All of which begs the initial question: What’s to like about Barack Obama? Sure, he’s got that big smile and the cool factor of being young and the first black president, but is that all there is? And is it enough?
Consider that, in a nation where millions are out of work with no hope of finding any, and where America faces serious security threats, we have a president who can’t handle criticism or disagreement, and who marches only to the drummer in his head.
His estrangement echoes Herman Melville’s protagonist in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the mysterious oddball who answers work requests with, “I would prefer not to.”
But let’s give Obama his greatest due. He did manage to get elected president, which means he fooled more than half the people once. As one of those suckers in 2008, I’m still wondering how he hid that contempt from so many people for so long.
The best explanation I find comes from “Dreams from My Father,” his first of two memoirs. In it, Obama tells a story from his senior year in high school. He was a pothead, and a friend had been arrested on serious drug charges. He describes his worried mother’s visit to his room:
“I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved—such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
As confessions go, that one rings true.
This column originally appeared in the New York Post. For more, click here