Friday, April 20, 2012

The "Nice Guy" Problem

No, not JFK. It's the One.
There he is. Let's ask him.

NOTHING CAN BE PROVEN. I'm actually trying to be fair about this. Conservatives are irate that thus far Romney seems to be repeating the John McCain strategy of ceding that Obama is a nice guy but wrongheaded about policy matters. Laura Ingraham was seething about it this morning, Michelle Malkin has a bellicose column about it and some supporting links (1, 2) including her own TV tirade on the subject.

The linked articles make excellent points about the political ruthlessness of the president and his penchant for being meaner and more personal in his attacks than people are used to from presidents. But there's also a sense in which they're missing the point or not making it in ways that could be truly effective.

People know that politics is hardball, and it's entirely possible, if not likely, that their definition of a "nice guy" excludes the public rhetoric and power moves and manipulations a national politician uses to prevail in accomplishing his agenda. Their definition may very well rest on intangibles outside the lines of political combat. In other words, it's not a political but a personal question. Which means conservatives who suspect Obama isn't a nice guy should look deeper than the cut and thrust of day-to-day politics if they want to dismantle the popular belief in the president's likeability.

I've done some research, which I'll share with you, but I am also asking for you to do research. My own has merely turned up more questions, which may be evidence of a kind, but it's hardly definitive. I say this believing with all my heart that this is the real Obama:

Cold, distant, superior, calculating, and opportunistic.

Obviously, part of the image is tied directly to the president's status as a man with a successful marriage and two young daughters. I don't know why men become less likeable when their children are grown and living lives of their own, but they seem to. Romney's misfortune. In the presidential context, Americans have a perpetual soft spot in their hearts for Camelot and the treasured photos of JFK with his lovely wife Jackie and their two adorable children.

A dream we all want to believe in.

Maybe the pics above were all staged photo-ops, but there is something undeniably warm and authentic about them nonetheless. So I got the idea of hunting down some "candid photos" from the Obama White House. When it comes to family, there aren't as many as you might suspect. But here are (truly) representative examples.

Still trying to be fair, but I'm not seeing the Camelot charm here. I'm unable to say that Michelle is gazing fondly or ever really quite looking at her husband in any of these photos. She seems forced in her few smiles, pained, frazzled, tired, or just plain physically distant from her husband. I;ll leave the girls out of it. (But is that an Obama football he's carrying in his romp with the dog who bears his initials? He looks happier with Bo than... well, enough said.) Truth is, the family pics are vastly outnumbered by arty pics of "Obama Alone," which I won't reproduce here but which also suggest a deliberate MSM attempt to identify him with the famous images of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Presumably, things have been that intense at the White House for every single day of his campaign and presidency.

Well, maybe they have been. I can't say the president isn't a nice guy from this kind of photo evidence, but I can say there's little sign of genuine warmth in the record we have. Maybe the Kennedys were just better at the posing that goes with the job.

Can we agree that warmth, humor, and abiding friendships are part of the nice guy profile even in a relatively solitary man?

If so, there's still a problem with the vaunted Obama likeability. Forget the missing transcripts, test scores, and university essays. It's darned hard to find Obama friends in his past. Even Nixon had Bebe Rebozo. Who does Obama have? Media attempts to paint a different picture have a blaring ring of inauthenticity. Take the 2008 MSM characterizations of his Harvard ties.

As Barack Obama puts together his administration, more than 20 Harvard Law School classmates dot the ranks of his transition team — solidifying the Crimson connection as his most enduring, yet least-known, personal network.

Eyeing the presidency as a freshman senator, Obama turned to his classmates first for their high-level contacts, and then to help raise campaign cash. Now, they’re putting their day jobs on the backburner to help their friend build a government.

“If you think about the progression of the president-elect’s national career, initially he didn’t have a national network of people who he could call on,” said Cassandra Butts, general counsel for the transition. “The Harvard group was helpful on that front — helping him make introductions on policy, political and financial fronts”...

[T]he Harvard relationships... reach two decades back, forged during a popular constitutional law class, at the financial aid counter in Pound Hall, in Butts’ kitchen during a dinner party, through long nights at the Harvard Law Review. As distance separated them, Obama was the one to try to stay in touch — penning personal letters in the days before e-mail, picking up the phone to congratulate a friend on the birth of a child...

The network, although loose, looks like the cross-section of a tree trunk, with a small group of the oldest friends occupying the innermost ring.

Butts, the transition general counsel, bonded with Obama as they filled out the financial aid forms guaranteeing years of debt for their Harvard education. As a Washington operative, Butts would later connect Obama to key figures such as Dick Gephardt during the infancy of his national political career. On the presidential campaign, she served as a domestic policy adviser.

At Harvard, Butts was moot court partners with Perrelli, who first met Obama at the dinner party and served as his managing editor on the Harvard Law Review. Perrelli, a Washington lawyer who had never been a fundraiser, would go on to collect more than $500,000 for Obama’s presidential campaign. He is now part of the Department of Justice transition team.

Dinner parties, phone calls, and financial aid forms. Damon and Pythias should be so lucky. More telling about the Harvard connection is this jocularity by Elena Kagan (now an associate justice of SCOTUS):

Kagan remembered the president-elect as a student who “took Harvard Law School by storm” when he stepped onto the Cambridge, Mass., campus in the fall of 1987.

She joked about how the president-elect has become somewhat of a claim to fame for many professors.

“Every faculty member I see says that he or she was Barack Obama’s mentor,” she said. “This guy must’ve been mentored to death!”

Why am I reminded of the saying that "success has many fathers (and failure is a bastard)?" If all those professors were mentoring him, why does nobody remember what courses he took or anything else about his academic career? Where are the friends who went carousing with him after finals? Unless that never happens at Havard Law School (Ha!).

It's equally hard to find people who remember him from Columbia, where he got his undergraduate degree. I looked. The subject is so mysterious that felt obliged to prove that he had actually attended Columbia. They succeeded in finding a couple people who remembered him, including a roommate:

The way Sohale Siddiqi remembers it, he and his old roommate were walking his pug Charlie on Broadway when a large, scary bum approached them, stomping on the ground near the dog's head.

This was in the 1980s, a time when New York was a fearful place beset by drugs and crime, when the street smart knew that the best way to handle the city's derelicts was to avoid them entirely. But Siddiqi was angry and he confronted the bum, who approached him menacingly.

Until his skinny, Ivy League-educated friend -- Barack Obama -- intervened.

He "stepped right in between. ... He planted his face firmly in the face of the guy. 'Hey, hey, hey.' And the guy backpedaled and we kept walking," Siddiqi recalls...

Obama spent the six years between 1979 and 1985 at Occidental College in Los Angeles and then in New York at Columbia University and in the workplace. His memoir, "Dreams from My Father," talks about this time, but not in great detail; Siddiqi, for example, is identified only as "Sadik" -- "a short, well-built Pakistani" who smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine and liked to party...

Together, the recollections of Siddiqi and other friends and acquaintances from Obama's college years paint a portrait of the candidate as a young man.

They remember a good student with a sharp mind and unshakable integrity, a young man who already had a passion for the underprivileged. Some described the young Obama's personality as confident to the point of arrogance, a criticism that would emerge decades later, during the campaign.

Not everyone who knew Obama in those years is eager to talk.

Some explained that they feared inadvertently hurting Obama's campaign. Among his friends were Siddiqi and two other Pakistanis, all of them from Karachi; several of those interviewed said the Pakistanis were reluctant to talk for fear of stoking rumors that Obama is a Muslim.

"Obama in the eyes of some right wingers is basically Muslim until proved innocent," says Margot Mifflin, a friend from Occidental who is now a journalism professor at New York's Lehman College. "It's partly the Muslim factor by association and partly the fear of something being twisted."

The young man Mifflin remembers was "an unpretentious, down to earth, solidly middle-class guy who seemed somewhat more sophisticated than the average college student. He was slightly reserved and deliberate in a way that I sometimes thought betrayed an uncertainty."

But another former Oxy classmate, Robert McCrary, now general manager of a contract sewing company, saw him differently: "He definitely had a cocky, sometimes arrogant way about him. ... He was not open to others"...

There's a great deal more of this piece and you need to read it because there are signs that Obama was sincere in his beliefs, personally honest to a fault, tolerant, capable of being a good friend, and not averse to going out on the town and picking up girls, though he had absolutely forsworn drugs by the time he reached Columbia.

Two more Columbia sources are Wikipedia and the New York Times. Everyone says he was smart and a good student, which obviously raises the question of why his Columbia records are as sealed as his Harvard records.

A nice guy? Hard to say. When you have an old acquaintance who became president (which Columbia historically doesn't do), memory can become convenient. The description of him as honest is suspect all by itself. Lying is, after all, the signature trait of his whole administration as well as the life he lived outside his vividly imagined autobiographies. The difference between "I knew him when" and "he was a good friend" can be a matter of "what's in it for me right now?"

Sadly, we're left with the photo at the top of this post, a mere silhouette of a man who, apart from his meteoric rise in politics, has left behind nothing personal that's colorful or even memorable, except in terms of what he ascended to later. In personal terms that doesn't make him a bad guy. But it does make him a drab one.

I suspect he's a lonely guy, which is neither good nor bad. Does that make him likeable? Not to me. I think he's retreated from real life into the utopian dreams inside his own head. That's his refuge, his substitute reality. And that's what makes him so incredibly dangerous to the constitution and the republic. He has the power to pretend that our realities don't exist or don't count. That's long been the road to ruin. Does he know the difference between posing and policy, between play-acting and principled leadership? I fear not.

Which would make him a very bad guy indeed.

But you -- all of you -- look into it for yourselves. We can't afford our president to be a cipher or a shadow. We need him to be a man.

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