No Holds Barred: Warts and all

US President Barack Obama comes across as perfect, and perfect people are boring. Can’t he show us a tiny demon or two?

311_obama yo mama (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
311_obama yo mama
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The erosion of Barack Obama’s popularity has lessons for every American who wishes to remain interesting. The real story in this election is not that America has no jobs, that the economy continues to falter, or that the national debt continues to balloon. While all three are true and, more importantly, Obama has failed to fix them, these conditions existed prior to Obama’s election. Yet somehow his personal charisma elevated the electorate.
The real story of campaign 2010 is how boring Obama has become. Obama, who had never run anything except a campaign in his life, performed an almost unprecedented conjuring act in 2008, getting the electorate to embrace him regardless of the utter absence of managerial skills. They believed not necessarily in his capacity to fix America’s transient problems, but in his ability to focus us on more eternal, upbeat themes like hope, faith and the future.
Yet now his very presence seems irritating. A man whose oratory lifted him to Earth’s highest office can’t seem to deliver a single uplifting line. As a connoisseur of great oratory, I used to love hearing Obama’s staccato delivery, perfect timing and mesmeric selfconfidence – the mark of any great speaker – even as I disagreed with him on many issues. But Obama’s speeches have now become insufferable, devoid of charisma and magnetism. Here are three principal reasons why.
First, he has utterly overexposed himself. As a marriage counselor, I always advise husbands and wives that, paradoxically, their marriages require intimacy on the one hand, but barriers and distance on the other. A wife walking around a bedroom unclothed, for example, is an invitation to erotic boredom and a dilution of her body’s natural attractiveness. Overexposure, as everyone knows, breeds contempt.
The Catholic Church is a master of mystery – from the shadows of its darkly lit Gothic cathedrals to its insistence on innumerable divine mysteries – so it is no wonder that it grew to control the world’s largest religion. It is the same reason why Torah scrolls are secreted in an ark, obscured first by doors, then by curtains, and finally by a velvet covering, all of which reflect reverence.
In Hollywood, it is specifically those celebrities who understand the need to stay out of the public eye that achieve the greatest longevity.
Obama, by contrast, always needs to be loved. He is forever in our face. From weighing in on every issue to becoming the president who travelled most in his first two years, Obama lives permanently in the sun. President George W. Bush used to vacation on his ranch, where he’d disappear for two weeks. Not so Obama, who even on holiday is constantly photographed buying ice cream and shooting hoops.
Less is more, Mr. President. Sometimes you have to give the people the opportunity to miss you. Superman knows that his grand entrances depend on being disguised the rest of the time as Clark Kent. But by being forever available, Obama has made himself pedestrian. He went from messiah to mortal, from star to sandstone.
SECOND, OBAMA has betrayed a lack of substance. When he was more mysterious, Obama encouraged our belief that there was depth beneath the gleaming surface; just give the man some time. But it turned out that vacuous speeches about hope and change were not a thin veneer but the very thing itself. I have yet to hear one truly new or exciting idea from Obama since he became president.
Bush was dismissed as a lightweight. But love it or hate it, the Bush Doctrine of preemption and its corollary – exporting democracy to recalcitrant states – was a compelling idea that invited ferocious debate. But with Obama we are back to the yawn-inducing discussions of big versus small government, and whether Keynesian deficit spending or reducing the national debt is the best way to rekindle the economy. I’m bored.
Third, Obama comes across as perfect. The most interesting people are always the most tortured. Bill Clinton clogged his arteries with cheeseburgers, and had sex with an intern in the Oval Office. Yet he left the presidency with a 60% approval rating. America never lost its fascination with this angst-ridden and highly imperfect leader, so unpredictable that we never knew what he’d get up to next. Not so nodrama- Obama, who evinces uncanny cool utterly bereft of inner trauma.
Of course we don’t want the president to cheat on his wife. But show us a tiny demon or two, other than the fact that you light up a cigarette. Demonstrate that you wrestle with moods the way we do when we can’t pay our bills, that you struggle with life’s disappointments like an ordinary mortal.
When I was a boy I revered but had no deep interest in our founding fathers because they were portrayed as perfect marble busts. It was only later, when I discovered how inconsistent the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson could be about human freedom, how depressed and suicidal Lincoln became, and how Martin Luther King, Jr. wrestled with marriage that these aloof figures became so endlessly fascinating.
In this sense I believe Obama was poorly served by seeming to be a golden boy who suffered few setbacks. Perhaps it’s time for him to talk about the pain of seeing his popularity plummet. Perfect people are boring and monolithic, but flawed human beings who rise above adversity are inspirational. If the president wants to recapture the public imagination, he would do well to expose a wart or two.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network which seeks to use universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values- Filled Life (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.