US President Barack Obama at Democratic Convention 370 (R).
(photo credit:Jim Young / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack
Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney. Why is he tied? The empathy gap.
On “caring about average people,” Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap
was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It’s the party’s only hope of
winning in November.
George H.W. Bush, Romney-like in aloofness, was once
famously handed a staff cue card that read: “Message: I care.” That was supposed
to be speech guidance. Bush read the card. Out loud.
Not surprisingly, he
lost to Bill Clinton, a man who lives to care, who feels your pain better than
you do – or at least makes you think so. In politics, that’s a trivial
On Wednesday night, Clinton vouched for Obama as a man
“who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside." Nice
phrase, but not terribly persuasive.
The real job of Clintonizing Obama
was left to Mrs. Obama. As she told it in the convention’s most brilliantly
cynical speech, her husband is not just profoundly compassionate but
near-Gandhiesque in feelings.
Others spoke about what
Obama had done.
Michelle’s job was to provide the why
: because he cares. Her talk was a
syllogism: Barack loves his wife, he loves his children, he loves his family –
therefore, he loves you.
I have no doubt about the first three
propositions, but the fourth is a complete non sequitur. We were assured,
nonetheless, that the president is a saintly man, dispensing succor – health
care (with free contraceptives), auto bailouts, fairness lawsuits – to his
people. The flood of tears in the hall testified to the power of this spousal
paean. Its brilliance lay in Michelle’s success in draining from Obama
any hint of ideological or personal motivation.
The problem with
swallowing the “he cares, therefore he does” line is that it so plainly
contradicts what we’ve seen over the last four years. Barack Obama is a deeply
committed social-democrat who laid out an unashamedly left-liberal agenda at the
very beginning of his presidency and then proceeded to try to enact
Obama passed Obamacare, regulated Wall Street, subsidized Solyndra
because that fits an ambitious left-wing agenda developed in his youth, now made
possible by his power: redistributionist, government-centered, disdainful of
success, suspicious of private enterprise, committed to his own vision of social
Also missing from her speech was any hint of his outsized
self-regard and personal ambition. Is he pursuing re-election because he cares?
Or because it’s the ultimate vindication of the self-created man who came from
nowhere to seize the prize? And whom defeat would turn into a historical
In 2008, Obama tellingly said that Ronald Reagan was historically
consequential in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Obama clearly sees himself as
the anti-Reagan, the man who reverses the 30-year conservative trajectory that
Reagan launched (hence his consequentiality), and returns America to the 50-year
liberal ascendancy that FDR began and Reagan terminated.
This makes you
world-historical. This is what drives the man who kept inserting the phrase “New
Foundation” in the major speeches he gave in the early months of his presidency.
The slogan was meant to make him the rightful heir to the authors of the “New
Deal” and “New Frontier.”
The phrase never took. But the ambition was
All this does not make Obama either bad or unique among
presidents. But it does give lie to the lachrymose portrayal of him as the good
family man writ large, presiding kindly over his flock.
His pledge in
2008 of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” speaks to the
largeness of both his ideology and his self-regard. That's the far more
plausible explanation of his drive to win, characterized by a ruthless
single-mindedness that undid the Clintons in 2008 (and at times unhinged Bill)
and that has so relentlessly demonized Romney in 2012.
The millions of
dollars devoted to that demonization account for some of that 22-point “empathy
gap.” Michelle’s soap-opera depiction of her husband as a man so infused with
goodness that it spills over onto his grateful subjects was meant to maintain
the other part of that gap.
I didn’t buy a word of it, but as a speech,
Michelle’s was very effective. After all, what else do you say when you’re
running for re-election in a land – as described so chillingly the next night by
Elizabeth Warren – wracked with misery and despair?Charles Krauthammer’s email
address is email@example.com.
(c) 2012, The Washington Post
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin