In electing a Republican senator, the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts were surely voicing their unhappiness over many things: high unemployment, the weakness of the economy, the health care plan Congress was on the verge of passing, and the expansion of government in general. But if you believe the polls, they were also expressing a degree of discontent, echoed around the country, with President Barack Obama himself. Few people hate Obama or regard him as illegitimate the way many did both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But Middle America isn’t feeling the love for reasons that may have more to do with his temperament than his policies.
The way Obama connects to people is the opposite of a Clinton, a Bush, or a Ronald Reagan. Those presidents were all relaters. They bonded with people based on common feelings, experiences, and interests. Reagan did this best through the medium of television. Bush did it best in person and not so well through television. Clinton could do it blindfolded and hanging upside down. But for all three, connecting emotionally was part and parcel of their political skill. As a result, people tended to love them or hate them, sometimes in succession, but without much neutral ground in between.
Obama’s coolness and detachment put him in a different category of president that includes Lincoln (on the positive side) and Jimmy Carter (on the negative). His relationship with the world is primarily rational and analytical rather than intuitive or emotional. As he acknowledged in his interview with George Stephanopoulos the day after Scott Brown’s victory, his tendency to focus on substance can make him seem remote and technocratic. So while many people continue to deeply admire him, few come away from any encounter feeling closer to him. He is not warm, he is not loyal, he is not deeply involved with others. His most fervent enthusiasts tend to express love for the ideas he embodies and represents—America transcending its racial history, a fairer and more unified society, rationality, wise decision-making, and so forth—as opposed to for the man himself.
This sense of separateness from other people, organizations, and causes runs through Obama’s biography. In Chicago politics, one learns to quickly place people in relation to the city’s big narrative. There was the old ethnic and ward-based Daley machine. There were the reform liberals (including my parents and their friends in the 1970s) who challenged it. There was the Harold Washington movement, which brought blacks into the political mainstream and finally killed off the machine. Since 1989, the second Mayor Daley has presided over a synthesis of these elements. If you know this story well, it’s not hard to locate anyone from Chicago—such as David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel—in relation to it. The funny thing about Obama is that although he arrived in Chicago in 1985 and started his career there, he somehow never joined in. He participated in politics while keeping a feathery distance.
This curious sense of remove characterizes Obama’s relationship with every institution he’s been part of—the Punahou School in Honolulu, Columbia University, Harvard Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, the Illinois state Senate, and finally the U.S. Senate. Obama succeeded professionally and made friends wherever he has went but never relinquished his unum to the pluribus. The only place he has described experiencing a sensation of community is in Trinity Church in Chicago, while listening to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. But even there, as he describes, it Dreams From My Father, his sense of belonging was tinged with ambivalence: “[P]art of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion somehow simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us.”
Obama’s self-interpretation expressed in that book is so subtle and persuasive that it has largely pre-empted other interpretations. Telling his story in relation to his missing father, the son tries to explain how discovering his identity helped him grow from anger and cynicism to a deeper sense of social commitment. The lack of deep attachments or intimate relationships in his life, however, is a different issue. To speculate a bit, it may have more to do with his relationship with his mother. When Barry Obama was 10, his mother sent him from Indonesia back to live with her parents in Hawaii. She returned there after her second marriage broke up, but when she returned to Indonesia a few years later, her teenage son chose to stay in Hawaii. This clearly affectionate but physically distant relationship seems to have left Obama self-reliant to an unusual degree.
For a politician, a high degree of emotional self-sufficiency is both an asset and a liability. On the positive side, it contributes to Obama’s rationalism, his level-headedness in crisis, and his dispassionate decision-making. On the negative, it can read as coldness, aloofness, or arrogance. Put in a slightly different way, it’s healthy that Obama doesn’t need the love of the crowd for validation. It’s a problem that the crowd seems to need more from him than he’s able to provide.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.