If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it's the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the "I'm you" part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they're us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them.
So when the White House released a photo over the weekend of President Obama shooting skeet, the smoke of freedom issuing forth from the barrel of his gun, you could almost hear him saying, "I'm not an effete socialist gun-hater. I'm you." If "you" happen to be one of the minority of Americans who own guns, that is. Even at this late date, Obama and his aides can't resist the urge, when confronted with a controversial policy debate, to send the message of cultural affinity to the people who—let's be honest—he is most unlike.
We should give the White House some credit, though. This came about because in an interview with The New Republic, Obama was asked whether he had ever fired a gun, and he responded that he shoots skeet "all the time" at Camp David, prompting conservatives to begin demanding photographic evidence. His aides knew that a photo of Obama shooting skeet wasn't going to convince anybody of anything, and in fact would just spur the President's most deranged opponents to make fools of themselves. Which is why White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted the photo "For all the 'skeeters,'" and senior advisor David Plouffe did the same, writing, "Attn skeet birthers. Make our day - let the photoshop conspiracies begin!" Lo and behold, a bevy of conservatives obliged with fine-grained analyses of why the photo was faked or staged, making it clear that their opposition to President Obama is rational and policy-based, and they are absolutely not a bunch of crazy people.
And to Obama's credit, in the interview that started the discussion about skeet shooting, he displayed what we actually ought to seek from politicians: an effort to understand people's differing perspectives and the things that are important to them. "Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas," he said. "And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family's traditions, you can see why you'd be pretty protective of that."
That's true, and the gun owners Obama is referring to are, according to opinion polls, supportive of the kinds of measures he's proposing, like universal background checks and limits on certain military-style guns and large-capacity ammunition clips. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but be reminded of the controversy from the 2008 campaign, when Obama was recorded saying people in small towns "cling to guns or religion" (you may have forgotten it, but people on the right haven't, I assure you). A supporter had asked him how to convince people in economically depressed small towns in places like Pennsylvania who are hostile toward Democrats to change their minds, and his answer was actually an attempt to explain to the questioner where those people might be coming from. What he was saying was that they felt let down by politicians who promised them again and again that they could improve their economic circumstances, and so they turned to cultural issues—and more particularly, resentments—to define their political identity and determine their votes. He ended by saying that even if you can't convince very many of them, it's important to try. It may have been phrased inartfully (to use Mitt Romney's formulation), but it was an attempt to understand and bridge personal divides, even if it became exactly the opposite. He couldn't say "I'm you" to those small-town white voters, but he was trying to say, "I get you."
Let's not forget too that part of what made Barack Obama so much more appealing than the average Democratic candidate to so many liberals in 2008 is that, in fact, he is them. Multi-racial, hailing from a big city, educated, sophisticated and urbane, Obama looked to many liberals like the kind of person they might encounter in their daily lives, maybe even the kind of person they imagine themselves to be. Much as liberals have derided the efforts of politicians from both parties to create cultural affinity—from George W. Bush, son of Kennebunkport, pretending to be a down-home reg'lar fella, to John Kerry, well, hunting—their cultural connection with Obama was thrilling to them. But liberals don't get that same thrill from him anymore, for the simple reason that he's been president for four years, and those feelings of affinity from 2008 have been overwhelmed by the feelings they have about everything that has happened since, both good and bad.
And that's true of the rest of the country too. Americans may not follow politics very closely, and they may not know very much about policy, but in 2013, if there's one thing they have a pretty good idea about, it's their feelings on one Barack Hussein Obama. After a first term full of consequential policy changes and significant real-world developments, substance has inevitably become far more important than style. The ones who find him alien and threatening wouldn't have their minds changed by a thousand photos, no matter what they seemed to communicate. Obama surely knows that. But maybe someday, a Republican candidate will stage a photo-op to convince voters that despite all appearances, he's just like college professors or Brooklyn hipsters. Instead of the "heartland" voters being pandered to, it'll be the coastal urban dwellers. "I'm you," he'll say. And just as they do now, voters will respond, "Yeah, right."