The Limits of Likeability

My friend Fred voted for Obama and trusts him to do the right thing. "He's the brightest and most decent person who's occupied the Oval Office in my lifetime," Fred says. His trust for the man extends to Obama's agenda. "I don't have time to wade into the details of the economy or health care or climate change legislation or anything else, but I know he's got my interests at heart."

My friend Sally also voted for Obama and still likes him, but she's increasingly upset about his policies. "He's giving away the store," she complains, pointing to his penchant for compromise. "He gave Wall Street $600 billion in bailouts and doesn't even want to regulate it, gave big polluters 85 percent of the cap-and-trade permits, and has promised the American Medical Association, Big Pharma, and private insurers whatever they want in return for their support of universal health care." Sally says she voted for Obama because he promised to change American politics, but she thinks corporate interests are more powerful than ever.

Sally also doesn't see why Obama is so bent on bipartisanship.

"Republicans haven't helped him a bit so far, won't help him, and he doesn't need their votes, so why compromise with them?"

Fred and Sally offer a fairly good sampling of Obama voters at this juncture, almost nine months after Election Day. Fred represents the trusters; Sally, the cynics. Some cynicism is to be expected in the post-honeymoon phase of any presidency, once the idealism of a campaign has crashed into the realities of governing. What seems unusual this time is how popular the president remains even as many of his supporters become uneasy about what he's actually doing. The apparent paradox may be the byproduct of the very qualities that put him into office.

His centeredness, calm, and dignity inspire trust but also suggest a certain lack of combativeness, an incapacity to express indignation, and an unwillingness to identify enemies -- all of which makes him too willing to compromise. Perhaps no black man could win the trust of a majority of American voters without also being especially conciliatory, but this is small consolation to those like Sally who want their president to fight for them.

Pollsters are fascinated that Obama's personal popularity endures -- his "favorables" still hovered close to 60 percent through midsummer -- even as support declines for much of what he broadly endorses, notably universal health care.

Republican pollsters, alert to this discrepancy between person and policy, have advised the GOP accordingly: Trying to get the public to distrust Obama is more difficult than arousing distrust for the platoons of government bureaucrats they say his policies are unleashing.

Obama's political advisers are trying to do exactly the reverse -- using the president's personal popularity to sell policies, much as Madison Avenue uses trusted personalities to promote products. But the politics of product endorsement don't seem to be working.

This is partly because Americans have already sealed off the man from his agenda. The more they see of Obama (and the rest of his family) the more they like him. But likeability isn't connecting to specific policies. The longer universal health care hangs out there, for example, the more doubts Americans have about it.

It's also because Obama hasn't yet taken full responsibility for detailed policies. He has set broad goals, allowed congressional committees to develop them into specific proposals, and then generally endorsed what Congress has done. Keeping distance from the specifics has been a wise tactic -- both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter got too far into specifics and paid a high price when Congress wrested back ownership. And it helps Obama to separate his own approval ratings from public worries about legislation. But it has also made his policies more vulnerable to scare tactics and caused the Sallies in the Democratic base to worry about Obama's willingness to fight. Obama may be temperamentally incapable of being more combative and identifying enemies. But surely he can state less equivocally what he does and does not want.

The widening gap between admiration for Obama and cynicism about his policies also reinforces passivity in Obama's base, which makes it even harder to advance a specific agenda. His presidential campaign strengthened the nation's political grass roots and spawned hope for a new era of public engagement, but Obama's reluctance to fight for any specifics is causing the base to lose interest. Neither the Freds who trust him nor the Sallies who have become cynical are motivated to do much of anything. But their activism is crucial. If it comes to a choice between trust and cynicism, America will never achieve lasting change.

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