Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Can Obama Win in 2012? Yes, IF He Drops the "Cool Man" Facade!

Some months ago I blogged about Obama's chances to retain the White House next year, saying they were excellent and that he'd be a "shoo -in" (political lingo for saying competitors need not apply). The "serious" GOP field at that time consisted largely of clowns like Herman Cain who no one in his right mind would take seriously. This was before the August Debt Ceiling Debacle, The Standard & Poor's downgrade and the continuing poor jobs reports.

The latest polls, (e.g. published in today's NY Times, WSJ), show that this is no longer a "gimme" for Mr. O. While a full 65% do find Mr. Obama "likeable and pleasant", only 40% wish to see him re-elected next year vs. 44% who prefer to vote for a Republican. It is this bifurcation that gives cause for Obama to worry, as well as the entry of another highly emoting Texan (Rick Perry) into the Republican field. What was once a Repug clown convention now features two serious challengers who could well unseat Obama (Currently, Obama edges Perry by 47%-42% if the election were held this week, and he's neck and neck with Romney at 46-46).

Now, how to articulate the dangers for Obama, and also show that they indicate he must do a major re-invention of his persona if he is to prevail next year?

First, as TIME columnist Joe Klein observed in an article some months back, "emoters" almost always win vs. detached types. There is a basic reason for this, and it can be summarized by saying Americans want to know if the guy at the top first has a pulse. Especially in parlous or trying times, they want to know where the guy stands and how intensely he is committed to that stance.

Klein, recalling the dynamics of recent election history in his piece, pointed out that charismatic emoter Reagan clobbered detached, heavy thinker Carter in 1980, just as he did Mondale in 1984. Meanwhile, high emoter Clinton bested George Bush Sr. the droning wonk in 1992. Finally, the drawling down-home emoter Gee Dumbya Bush beat the cool technocrat Al Gore in 2000. (Though, technically Gore did win the popular vote by a half million.)

Now true, McCain in 2008 was also an emoter, and one might have predicted he'd overtake Obama. But the difference is that he became known more for negative emoting which is even worse than zero emotion. Losing it assorted times on the campaign trail and then at critical points in the presidential debates didn't help to eliminate that perception.

Rick Perry is another story. The guy is everything that many Americans love, from his Texan swagger to his all -American bravado and straight talk, such as saying (yesterday): "Yeah, I'm all for gun control! Take out both hands and hold 'er steady, then FIRE!"

Moreover, he comes across as a fighter, except for the wrong things and reasons. For example, he'd fight to privatize or eliminate Social Security because in his idiotic book ('Fed Up!') he claims it violates some constitutional provision or clause. Evidently, Mr. Perry never read the Constitution's Preamble and the injunction therein to "promote the general welfare" (which Social Security surely does) nor did he read the Ninth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which fully allows for unenumerated rights, i.e. rights not specifically stated or specified under the written Constitution. Clearly, the most able legal scholars would be able to defend S.S. under this provision, as an "unenumerated right", just like affordable health care or privacy.

But this is what Obama faces: a candidate who is wrong and strong (and yes, I believe Perry with all the Texas Oil money behind him, and much more drawl than Romney, will prevail over him, irrespective of Romney's business experience bragging.)

So, given a likely race between Perry and Obama, can Obama win? Yes, BUT.....only if he drops the cool man shuck and jive and becomes a fighter. (As more and more people are asking, as per a current TIME magazine piece: "If he won't fight for himself, why would he fight for us?") He will also have to initiate a "war room" - just like Bill Clinton did - and man it with hard bitten bull dogs and fighters (Clinton used James Carville) to parry every Perry attack (of which there will be many!). Recall this is the guy who beat Terry Sanchez for the Texas governorship by creating the spin that he was linked to Mexican drug cartels.

Is Obama prepared to fight such down in the gutter tactics? He damned well better be if he doesn't want to end up as Carter II.

But this means he will need to re-invent himself! He can't keep playing Mr. Spock if he wishes to beat Mr. Perry. And while 65% applaud his "likeableness" it will not be enough in a head to head vs. Mr. Perry, the Texan. Many "likeable" guys have gone to hard defeat, like Adlai Stevenson (1956) and Jimmy Carter (1980).

Analyzing Obama in a current Psychology Today issue ('Step Away from the Slur', Sept.Oct., p. 52), author Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton observes that Obama's "famous cool under pressure demeanor suggests the president strategically deploys self-distancing. " He then goes on to quote New York Times columnist David Brooks in this regard:

"At every challenging moment his instinct is to self-remove and establish an observer's perspective".

The inherent real peril in doing this is one loses his emotional connection to his audience, and it stands out. Further, no amount of teleprompter- based oratory can compensate, nor can Obama expect to repeatedly and usefully deploy it with his current very fragile coalition, as he did in 2008. That game is up, since his 'Hope and change' message has now been subjected to the tempering cauldron of governing reality and been found wanting.

In effect, in any head to head with a guy who just drawls and "shoots from the hip" - like Rick Perry, Obama is bound to come up short where it counts: in the emotional optics.

Right now, in what looks like a new recession (or 2nd dip of the first) people are hurting and it'll take a lot more than calm words to soothe them. Many others are rightfully angry, and they want to see a guy with blood in his veins who shares that anger, not a cerebral cyborg. To this end, as he nears campaign 2012 in full tilt, Obama has got to find a way to break complex ideas and themes into simpler sentences his audiences will relate to, because you can make book Rick Perry will do it.

As for cool detachment and the detached observer's purview, that works great in some instances and encounters, but not now or in campaign mode. People- voters don't want to listen to the lecture of some professor, but to hear the emotionally inspiring words of a fighter. Obama, please do replay some of the old FDR fireside chat tapes, and also some of JFK's, as when he railed against U.S. Steel in April, 1962, e.g.

Maybe some of that passion will get to you by memetic osmosis!

If Obama does decide to retain his cool man persona, and also keep doing things to antagonize his most fired up supporters (his base) - say like proposing cuts to Medicare and COLA changes to Social Security- than he might do well to start sending out resumes to Harvard and Stanford Law School now.

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