The magic is gone from President Barack Obama. He’s here, but the glamour has vanished. He still talks, but few people appear to be listening.
Some time in spring, it began to be noticed (by Fred Barnes, among others) that he was losing the power to move people, or shape their opinions. When his agenda began meeting resistance, he gave a series of speeches and resistance grew stronger. The more he explained, the more people disliked what he said he was doing.
The base remained loyal, but three other subgroups had become disenchanted. “The thrill is gone,” said E.J. Dionne, who seemed at a loss as to where it had gone to. In the interests of clarity, and of diagnosis, let us attempt to explain.
There was one group that fell for Obama the Moderate, the man who kept his head (or appeared to) in the financial meltdown last autumn, the temperamental conservative who seemed incremental, the one David Brooks would call “Burkean.” Unfortunately, the temperamental conservative turned out to be an ideological radical, intent on ramming through on a narrow majority (and against the wishes of most of the country) a massive redo of the health care delivery system — an immense stack of paper that no one has read.
A second group fell for Obama the Story, the half-African waif whose rise to the leadership of a powerful, once-slave-holding nation was the matter of legend, and tears. He was Reaganesque, he was JFK Redux, a figure of glamour and eloquence.
But Reagan and Kennedy saw themselves as temporary custodians of a tradition older and bigger than they were, and thought they were lucky to serve it. Obama seems to think he is doing the country a favor by gracing it.
Reagan and Kennedy wanted to project and increase American power and influence; Obama wants to walk it back from what he thinks are its delusions of consequence. Reagan and Kennedy talked about freedom, which gave their speeches their eloquence. Obama is bored with the subject of freedom (ask Iran and Honduras), and talks of himself.
It is a topic that gets stale fairly quickly. In fact, it already has.
Then there’s the third group, perhaps the most painful, which is the young voters, who fell for Obama the Fad. “In 2008 the torch really was passed to a new generation of voters,” Dionne had said hopefully. A year later, however, the torch has gone missing, or simply slipped out of their hands.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake found “a dramatically lower level of turnout from Obama surge voters,” whose lack of interest seemed terminal. “I don’t like what any of them are doing in Washington,” an ex-voter complained. It was all so confusing, or perhaps so exhausting. “I’m tired of politics,” as another one told her. “I need a rest.”
Whatever. Anyone who followed last year’s election knew politics was only one part of the sale.
“Barack Obama … is now being treated as a new fashion icon,” one fashion blog had reported. Anna Wintour held fundraisers for him. Diane von Furstenberg designed a tote in his honor. Donatella Versace dedicated her collection to him, during Fashion Week in Milan.
Obama was sold less as a pol than a fashion accessory, which is how the young bought him. It didn’t hurt that he looked like the models in catalogues. He was so young and so hip, and so trendy and slender.
They bought less his ideas than his aura and ambience. And what was the problem with that?
Well, quite a lot. As any fashionista will tell you, the problem with being this year’s “in” fashion is that sooner or later, you’re “out.”
Obama now is “so 2008,” which might be 1908 to Celinda Lake’s voters. They’ve been there and done that, and want the new model.
All presidents fail in some things, and some fail in most things — but Obama is the first to become a true fashion victim. Everyone knows what happens to fashions that go out of style: They get shoved on a rack to the back of the closet, and slide in a heap to the floor.