You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Does Obama Feel Your Pain? Does It Matter?

Conventional wisdom has it that President Obama's cool, relatively detached style has made it harder for him to make the case that he's worked up about the economic struggles of average Americans. John Harwood, writing in the New York Times, doesn't buy it:

Mr. Obama may have played like a rock star in the campaign arenas of 2008, according to this view, but he displays a Spock-like emotional aridity in more intimate settings. In reality, however, a look back at previous midterm elections, especially during economic weakness, suggests that dollars and cents matter far more than hugs or lip-biting.
It’s not that the Obama administration isn’t striving to touch economically squeezed voters in more direct and personal ways. Mr. Obama risked criticism for breaching presidential decorum by appearing on “The View.” He has begun holding backyard meetings with suburban families.
Last week’s hourlong “town hall” on CNBC, which I moderated, was part of that effort. But Mr. Obama declined to offer any Oprah-style emotional revelation when I asked whether his unusual background--as a biracial child who spent part of his youth overseas, then attended Ivy League schools--made it harder to connect with average Americans.
“When the unemployment rate is so high and people are having a tough time, it doesn’t matter if I was green, it doesn’t matter if I was purple,” he said matter-of-factly. “I think people would still be frustrated.”
Perhaps that was a moment missed, but history offers scant evidence to think so.
Despite President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s celebrated World War II record, voters didn’t “like Ike” enough to keep his fellow Republicans from losing 48 House seats amid the 1958 recession. For all his talents, Mr. Clinton watched his party lose control of both the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm election, in which economic weakness was one of many factors. “We have a controlled experiment,” observed Stan Greenberg, one of Mr. Clinton’s pollsters, downplaying the significance of Mr. Obama’s empathic skills. “Clearly Bill Clinton had the ability to connect emotionally. He got slaughtered in 1994.”

I have no problem believing the president doesn't connect with a lot of voters emotionally, for whatever reason, and that this lack of connection hurts his popularity at the margins. But mostly I'm with Obama and Harwood on this one: The biggest reason he and his party are struggling right now is the economy.