Obama’s Glamour Can’t Fix His Charisma Deficit

Bloomberg View , August 03, 2011

One thing is clear in the aftermath of the debt-limit debate: U.S. President Barack Obama has lost his glamour. The alluring icon of hope and change has become just another pol, derided by his supporters as well as his opponents. As one headline succinctly put it: “Obama succumbs to the ways of Washington.”

Most striking was how irrelevant the president seemed to the entire debate. Obama didn’t present his own alternative to the various congressional plans or make a case for a particular policy. When he tried to address the public, he came off as condescending, self-interested and detached. His pulpit proved anything but bully.

Contrary to some of the headlines, however, the crisis didn’t mark a dramatic shift in the president’s standing. Gradual disillusionment set in long before the debt-ceiling fight. Back in October, a Bloomberg National Poll asked people who had at some point been Obama supporters how they now felt about him. Forty-two percent said they were less enthusiastic than they’d once been, with 35 percent still supporting the president at least some of the time and 7 percent either no longer supportive or actively opposed to him.

That was 10 months ago. Since then, the president’s general approval ratings have been trending down, hitting a new low in Gallup’s survey last week. Although angry liberals are the loudest online voices, Obama’s real weakness, according to Gallup, comes from eroding support among moderates. Less than half of them now approve of the job he’s doing, compared with 59 percent in early June.

Obama may well win re-election -- for that, he only has to convince voters that he’s the lesser of two evils -- but the enthusiasm of his 2008 campaign has certainly vanished.

What happened? In 2008, after all, not just political pundits and regular folks were expecting big things of Obama. So were certified leadership gurus. Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California and Andy Zelleke of Harvard praised Obama for possessing “that magical quality known as charisma.”

This charisma, they predicted, would give Obama “the transformational capacity to lift the malaise that is paralyzing so many Americans today” because “a charismatic leader could break through the prevailing orthodoxy that the nation is permanently divided into red and blue states ... and build a broader sense of community, with a compelling new vision.”

There was only one problem. Obama wasn’t charismatic. He was glamorous -- powerfully, persuasively, seductively so. His glamour worked as well on Bennis and Zelleke as it did on voters.

What’s the difference? Charisma moves the audience to share a leader’s vision. Glamour, on the other hand, inspires the audience to project its own desires onto the leader (or movie star or tropical resort or new car): to see in the glamorous object a symbol of escape and transformation that makes the ideal feel attainable. The meaning of glamour, in other words, lies entirely in the audience’s mind.

That was certainly true of Obama as a candidate. He attracted supporters who not only disagreed with his stated positions but, what is much rarer, believed that he did, too. On issues such as same-sex marriage and free trade, the supporters projected their own views onto him and assumed he was just saying what other, less discerning voters wanted to hear.

Even well-informed observers couldn’t decide whether Obama was a full-blown leftist or a market-oriented centrist. “Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test,” his friend Cassandra Butts told Rolling Stone early in the campaign. “People see in him what they want to see.”

Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combined youth, vigor and good looks with a vague promise of political change. Like Kennedy, Obama was both charming and self-contained. Kennedy’s wealth set him apart, but Obama’s mystery stemmed from his exotic background -- an upbringing and ethnicity that defied conventional categories and distanced him from humdrum American life. Obama was glamorous because he was different, and his differences mirrored his audience’s aspirations for the country.

He was the political equivalent of the seductive high heels described by Leora Tanenbaum in her book “Bad Shoes”: “When you see a pair of stilettos on display in a department store or featured in a fashion magazine, you can imagine yourself wearing them and becoming the kind of person who lives a magical life, gliding around gracefully with no need for sensible, lace-up shoes. The fantasy just might become realizable by stepping into the shoes and inhabiting them.”

That’s glamour.

Equally glamorous was candidate Obama’s call to “a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents of goodwill -- who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal.” It was an invitation to the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like. All voters had to do was slip on the right president.

Glamour is a beautiful illusion -- the word “glamour” originally meant a literal magic spell -- that makes the ideal seem effortlessly attainable. Glamour hides difficulty and distractions, creating a false and enticing sense of grace. We see the dance, not the rehearsals; the beach resort, not the luggage and jet lag. There are no bills on the kitchen counter, no freckles on the pale-skinned star, no sacrifices in the promise of change.

This illusion is hard to maintain for more than an escapist moment. Even the most beautiful shoes are never as glamorous once you’ve worn them and discovered they give you blisters or, at best, didn’t transform your life. The same is true of presidents. Familiarity breeds discontent.

Among the early signs of Obama’s dissipating glamour were the complaints that he didn’t emote enough over the BP oil spill -- a surprising criticism of a man whom many supporters had praised for his Spock-like demeanor. But apparently not everyone saw Spock in candidate Obama. Some saw Bill Clinton. They expected the president to feel their pain.

Clinton, with his obvious appetites and open eagerness to please, was never glamorous -- no distance or mystery for him. But Clinton was charismatic. He inspired intense loyalty, even from supporters who disagreed with him on specific policies or disapproved of his moral transgressions.

If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why his supporters are so angry. He should be able to win them over. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, then his problems aren’t surprising.

With glamour, any specific action that stands outside the fantasy breaks the spell, alienating supporters who disagree. Even trying to remain above the fray, as Obama often does, infuriates those who want a fighter.

A well-established sales tool, glamour is a tremendous asset if you’re running for office. But once you have to govern, it’s a problem. Although charisma can continue to inspire, glamour is guaranteed to disillusion. The only thing surprising about Obama’s predicament is how few people expected it.