It’s no secret that the Obama campaign and its surrogates will continue to portray Mitt Romney at too detached from the lives of ordinary Americans to be elected president.
“Governor Romney’s a little out of touch,” Vice President Joe Biden told Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer in early April.
Or as actress and Obama supporter Jane Lynch put it recently about the nominee-to-be, “the guy does not know how to relate to people.”
But it’s a theme the Obama campaign ought to think twice about before advancing. That’s because President Obama himself exhibits a striking inability to connect with an electorate he seems uninterested in getting to know.
Obama rarely spends time with average Americans, and can seem smug and downright clueless about their lives when he talks about them.
We got a glimpse of this ignorance in the 2008 campaign, when Obama told a room full of San Francisco donors that Midwesterners cling to guns, religion and xenophobia. It surfaced again last year when he told a woman at a town hall event that he found it “interesting” that her unemployed engineer husband couldn’t find work.
Obama’s staff privately concede that their boss has a hard time understanding people. “Surprisingly for someone who led such an inspirational campaign,” a longtime executive branch employee told the Atlantic’s James Fallows, “[Obama] does not seem to have the ability to connect with people.”
Obama’s inability to connect shouldn’t be all that surprising, however. Obama has spent most of his adult life living, working, and socializing in upper middle class suburbs, college towns, and seats of government. Hyde Park in Chicago, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. are fine cities. But they don’t necessarily give residents a clear picture of the way most Americans live.
Granted, the bar for presidential connectedness was set high by Obama’s immediate predecessors. Bill Clinton was in his element around other people, be they powerful D.C. insiders or average voters. Clinton had a natural ability to convince people he could feel their pain.
And it was often said that George W. Bush was the politician voters would most want to sit down and have a beer with. Though a child of privilege, Bush seemed to enjoy hobnobbing with average Americans.
Obama wasn’t always the aloof politician he has become. As Jodi Kantor relates in her book, The Obamas, Obama went out of his way to spend time with people as he worked his way up the political ranks. “Earlier in his career, he had shown up to tiny events, shaken every hand,” she writes.
But Obama’s approachability changed quickly as his political trajectory spiked. “Now fame and demand drew him deeper within himself,” Kantor writes about Obama during his time in the U.S. Senate. “His time and patience were shrinking, his desire for self-protection and privacy increasing. Some staffers had a word to describe the moments when he seemed unable or unwilling to connect: Barackward, a combination of ‘Barack’ and ‘awkward.'”
It wasn’t long before even spending time with American troops became a burden for him. In The Operators, Michael Hastings depicts candidate Obama as impatient when asked to pose for photos with American troops in Iraq. “He didn’t want to take pictures with any more soldiers,” a State Department official told Hastings. “He was complaining about it.”
Any president is isolated by definition. And anyone can understand Obama’s preference not to have to be “on” at every waking moment, as well as his desire to spend as much of his free time as possible with his young family.
And let’s give Obama credit for continuing the presidential tradition of reading, and responding to, letters from the public. Obama reportedly reads 10 letters a day from his constituents, which Eli Saslow, author of the book Ten Letters, told Politico, offers Obama “a small window that he has to real people and real issues. He has such trouble creating authentic interaction with people. … These letters, what they really give him is the unfiltered chance to read people’s diary entries.”
But Obama could make a greater effort to get to know the people he serves. Instead, he spends an inordinate amount of time raising money for himself. Obama has held more than 100 re-election fundraisers in the less than a year since he officially filed his candidacy for a second term with the Federal Election Commission on April 4, 2011.
And his free time is often spent relaxing on luxurious vacations, hosting elaborate state dinners, appearing on comedy talk shows or mingling with A-list celebrities at posh White House events, such as the recent concert there for Black History Month featuring Mick Jagger and B.B. King.
Obama has a well-known affinity for golf, a game that would seem to offer ample opportunity for socializing. Obama has golfed more than 100 times during his first term. But, according to the New York Times, his foursomes usually consist of the same small group of mid- to low-level West Wing staffers. Otherwise, as the Times reported in December, Obama is increasingly isolated, spending “his down time with a small-and shrinking-inner circle of aides and old friends.”
Obama’s inability to connect may seem trivial. But it surely hampers his capacity to tap into the empathy he insists informs so much of his agenda. Obama’s lack of connectedness may help explain his distant and then dysfunctional response to the Gulf Coast oil spill, and the deep unpopularity of some of his signature initiatives, such as Obamacare and the contraceptive mandate.
Obama once wrote that empathy “is at the heart of my moral code.” But, by insulating himself from most Americans, Obama can’t possibly develop or employ the empathy necessary to govern as a president for all Americans.