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Barack Obama: Cold Fish or Warm Fuzzy Teddy Bear?

- February 28, 2012

In James Fallows’s interesting take on the Obama presidency, he discusses the notion that Obama is “cold.”  He refers to this as one of “Barack Obama’s particular versions of the weaknesses every president brings to office” and one of “the diagnoses that I heard, and have myself observed.”  Two illustrative quotes from this discussion:

“President Obama’s extra-high intellectual capacity is simply not matched by his emotional capacity,” I was told by someone with long experience in the executive branch. “Surprisingly for someone who led such an inspirational campaign, he does not seem to have the ability to connect with people…”

…Mondale said that until the midterm elections, Obama was seen—incorrectly, in Mondale’s view—as an “aloof and diffident president in the eyes of those who were suffering.” But he has now, Mondale thinks, changed his tone.

This and similar assessments of Obama, which have been repeated over and over by political observers and pundits, were and are absolutely at odds with what a large majority of Americans think.  Here is some data from Pew:

In the January 2012 poll, 71% said Obama is “warm and friendly” rather than “cold and aloof.”  He is viewed favorably on related dimensions as well, such as “good communicator” and “cares about people like me.”  He is viewed more favorably on these dimensions than his overall job approval — which has been hovering in the 40s for a while and is only now approaching 50% — would suggest.  Moreover, there has been no meaningful shifts in opinion on these dimensions since June 2010, despite Mondale’s suggestion that Obama’s behavior has recently changed.

In short, while pundits often blame Obama’s struggles on his cold, aloof personality, most of the very public whose middling approval ratings attest to Obama’s struggles see him as anything but cold or aloof.

I am interested in the sources of this disjuncture between political leaders and commentators, on the one hand, and the public, on the other.  One possibility: the public’s view is simply mistaken.  The public sees a stage-managed view of the president.  He sings, he has a cute dog, he’s a good father and husband — he’s just likable.  But in his private interactions with staff, members of Congress, reporters, and so on, he is much cooler and distant.  Fallows’s piece reviews some of those tales.  Here’s another.

But could the public’s view be correct?  Perhaps political leaders, journalists, and others are simply assuming that how the president treats them indicates his true personality.  In some sense, this is Obama’s claim.  Because he fails to schmooze or stroke egos, these people get miffed.  Their irritation leads them to misinterpret Obama’s behavior as somehow driven by his character rather than, as he says, a desire to spend time with his family or the belief that schmoozing pays few dividends.

The obvious response is: “Why not some of both?”  Yes, sure, but that’s sort of a cop-0ut.  Both explanations may contain truth, but in equal measure?

I don’t have an answer, obviously.  But it seems important for commentary that discusses the “cold, aloof Obama” to engage the survey data (Fallows doesn’t) and, even better, to ponder why voters seems to think Obama is so much warmer than Beltway denizens believe.