Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Too Cool?

I couldn't help but notice this, from Walter Shapiro's piece on Barack Obama in today's Salon:
A little later in the questioning, a man announced that his son was a paratrooper headed to Iraq and denounced the congressional Democrats for backing down on a timetable for withdrawal. (Obama, like all his Democratic rivals in Congress, save Joe Biden, were part of the minority opposing continued unrestricted funding of the war.) In his lengthy response, Obama talked about how he "struggled" with his Senate vote and understood why "my colleagues had a hard time with it." But Obama, the only leading Democratic presidential contender to oppose launching the Iraq war, went on to say, "I couldn't in good conscience continue on a course that wasn't working."

There was only one thing that was surprising about Obama's answer -- he never once acknowledged that he was talking to the father of a soldier headed into a brutal war zone, a parent who feared that his son might die in a conflict that has lost any rationale or larger meaning.

It's been said that Obama has a "cool" style on the stump - restrained, thoughtful, even a little remote. And no one's asking him to run over and give the man a hug if that's not what he's feeling. But a big part of campaigning is allowing people to see you making human connections with the people you encounter. I've been told that Obama has an ability to charm people one-on-one that is near-Clintonian. But you have to be able to let people see you doing the same thing.

Speaking of the empathizer-in-chief, it's instructive to remember the moment where, to my mind, he won the presidency. You might remember that during the second debate, President Bush had trouble answering a woman from the audience who asked about how the national debt had personally affected the candidates. Taking her question literally, Bush struggled to come up with a coherent answer, eventually saying defensively, "Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn't affect them?" But when Clinton's turn came, he left his chair, walked over as close as he could get to the woman, looked in her eyes, and said, "Tell me how it's affected you."

This may seem gimmicky, but by seeing Clinton establishing a connection with this one person, Americans were convinced that he cared about them. If Obama is thinking that doing that sort of thing is artificial, well, the entire exercise of campaigning is fundamentally artificial. There's nothing natural about it. Obama is an extremely talented campaigner, but if this one vignette is representative (and I haven't watched him on the stump enough to say), then he may have some work to do.

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