Look at President Obama’s face during his White House press conference following last week’s post-midterm election debacle, and what do you see? You may not be a facial coding expert like I am, but anybody can recognize –and maybe even be shocked by—the degree to which Barack Obama has gone from the ebullient campaigner of 2008 to a very bitter, frustrated man. The pressed lips and especially the bulge beneath the lower lip betray anger, disgust and sadness, with the last of those emotions accentuated by the narrow, lowered eyes that also reveal disappointment.
How, beyond the ghastly specter of partisan sniping and gridlock over pressing national issues, did it come to this point? Why has the president’s originally attractive cool confidence begun to strike many (especially independent) voters as aloof arrogance worth rejecting instead?
To answer that question, let me back up to the two most decisive impressions I got of Barack Obama during the Democratic debates of 2008. Both came in Philadelphia, with the first on October 30, 2007, when Hillary Clinton was caught by the late Tim Russert in a lie about whether she truly wanted to seek the release of Bill Clinton’s presidential papers, as a way to validate her White House experience. When Russert held up a copy of a letter from the Clintons asking for the papers withheld until 2013, first John Edwards pounced, and then by degrees Barack Obama weighed in.
In Obama’s case, he did so with all the bumbling earnestness of his very best impersonation of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Seizing on Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty and linking it to George W. Bush’s secrecy, Obama established himself as the authentic alternative and I immediately changed my odds of Obama upstaging her for the Democratic nomination to no better than 2-to-1 in favor of Hillary.
The final Democratic debate of 2008 also took place in Philadelphia, on April 16. By then Obama was the front-runner, but under siege, having just made a huge, revealing goof. At a private fundraiser in San Francisco days earlier, he’d infamously said:
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone for twenty five years and nothing’s replaced them. So it’s not surprising then that [people there] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
During that debate, Obama tilted his head back (literally looking down his nose at people), faintly curled his upper lip in a sign of disgust and at times even averted his eyes from the viewing audience, as if to say: “I can’t stand the stench in the trench.” Watching that night, I said to myself: a couple of more debate performances like this one, and the White House will never be yours.
Now flash-forward to the recent mid-term elections, and Obama’s take on things. In the run-up to the mid-terms, Obama spoke at an event in New York City about how people’s thinking gets muddled by fear. In dismissing the emotional dynamics of voters caught up in economic distress, let alone a very reasonable, profound concern that the country isn’t headed in the right direction, Obama struck me as confirming the fact that the “bitter” comment he made in San Francisco wasn’t a one-time blooper.
For all his talent and ability to pin his campaign to emotions, i.e., hope, this isn’t a president who is as emotionally literate—and empathetic—as he is an intellectual prone to elitism. But don’t just take my word on it. As the retiring Democratic governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, recently said, “There doesn’t seem to be anybody in the White House who’s got an idea what it’s like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away. They’re all intellectually smart. They’ve got their numbers. But they don’t feel any of it, and I think people sense that” (emphasis added).
President Obama can try to view the midterm slaughter of Democratic candidates as less of a referendum on him and his vaunted communication skills than on the 9.6% national unemployment rate. But just as Hillary Clinton was caught in a big lie by Tim Russert, if Obama’s not more honest with himself in private, then he’s guilty of the reality that in life the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves in order to protect our self-image, energy level, and ability to project ourselves as a winner capable of attracting allies.
The bigger truth is that, ironically enough for a former, caring, grassroots community organizer, Obama thinks his feelings more than he feels them. He can feel free to take the high road in life, but frankly the vast majority of us—and really all of us—live on the low road where our emotions, not reason, drive our decisions and behavior, including how we vote on Election Day.
The president had better find some way to get viscerally in touch with voters, and quickly, because in 2012 he won’t be able to campaign on hope. Instead, he’s got to convince voters through results and the ability to, in so many words, indicate that he “feels their pain.”
It’s been said that courage is the absence of self-deception. It’s now time for the audacity of hope to give way to finding the heartfelt courage and fortitude that both America at large and this president in particular will need to be successful in the years ahead.
Dan Hill is the author of "Face Time," a look at the emotional dynamics of the 2008 presidential race, and the president of the market research consultancy, Sensory Logic.