Slug the Obama Story ‘Disconnect’

The first thing I learned in journalism is that every story has a name. At WEEI News Radio in Boston, the editor would label each story with one word, called a “slug,” and assign a writer to write it for air. This week’s devastating earthquake would be slugged “Haiti.” A story about a gruesome murder might be “Nightmare.”

We’re at the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and the slug, the word that captures its essence, is “Disconnect.”

This is, still, a surprising word to use about the canny operatives who so perfectly judged the public mood in 2008. But they haven’t connected since.

There is a disconnect, a detachment, a distance between the president’s preoccupations and the concerns of the people. There’s a disconnect between his policy proposals and the people’s sense, as expressed in polls, of what the immediate problems are.

President Barrack ObamaI’m not referring to what is being called the president’s rhetorical disconnect. In this criticism, he is not emotional enough when he speaks, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he is aloof, like a lab technician observing the movements within a petri dish called America. It may be true that this doesn’t help him, but so what? In a successful presidency, his cool demeanor would be called an interesting facet, not a problem. And we don’t really need presidents to move us, when you think about it. We need them to lead, and in the right direction.

Nor am I referring to an iconic disconnect. In this criticism, the president refuses to or is unable to act as a paternal figure. “A president is a father,” say these critics. “He must comfort us.” But, actually, your father is your father. Voters didn’t hire Mr. Obama to play the old dad in the MGM movie. In any case he always seemed like the bright older brother, not the father. At the end of the day you, being a grown-up, don’t need him to be your daddy, do you?

You want a competent chief executive with a deep and shrewd sense of the people. Americans want him to be on the same page as they are. But he’s on a different page, and he may in fact be reading a different book. Thus the latest Quinnipiac poll, which puts his approval/disapproval at a descending 45% to 45%. Pure hunch: The approval number is probably slightly high because people don’t want to disapprove of their new president—the stakes are so high!—and don’t like telling pollsters they disapprove of him.

The real story is that his rhetorical and iconic detachment are harped on because they reflect a deeper disconnect, the truly problematic one, and that is over policy. It doesn’t really matter how he sounds. It matters, in a time of crisis, what he does. That’s where the lack of connection comes in.

The people are here, and he is there. The popularity of his health care plan is very low, at 35% support. Someone on television the other day noted it is as low as George Bush’s popularity ratings in 2008.

Yet—and this is the key part—the president does not seem to see or hear. He does not respond. He is not supple, able to hear reservations and see opposition and change tack. He has a grim determination to bull this thing through. He negotiates each day with Congress, not with the people. But the people hate Congress! Has he not noticed?

The people have come alive on the issue of spending—it’s too high, it threatens us! He spends more. Everywhere I go, I hear talk of “hidden taxes” and a certainty that state and federal levies will go up, putting a squeeze on a middle and upper middle classes that have been squeezed like oranges and are beginning to see themselves as tired old rinds. Mr. Obama seems at best disconnected from this anxiety.

The disconnect harms him politically, but more important it suggests a deepening gulf between the people and their government, which only adds to growling, chafing national discontent. It also put the president in the position, only one year in, only 12 months into a brand-new glistening presidency, of seeming like the same old same old. There’s something tired in all this disconnect, something old-fashioned, something sclerotic and 1970’s about it.

And of course the public is reacting. All politicians are canaries in coal mines, they’re always the first to feel the political atmosphere. It was significant when the Democrats lost the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey two months ago. It is significant that a handful of House and Senate Democrats have decided not to run this year. And it is deeply significant that a Republican state senator in Massachusetts, Scott Brown, may topple the Democratic nominee to fill Ted Kennedy’s former seat, Martha Coakley. In a way, the Republicans have already won—it’s a real race, it’s close, and in “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts”!

Mr. Brown’s whole story right now is not about disconnect but connect. Massachusetts has an 8.8% unemployment rate, and graduates of the commonwealth’s great universities can’t find work. An old Boston Republican hand said of the race, “It’s 100% percent about policies—health care, taxes, what’s the plan on the economy?” Mr. Brown charges that Ms. Coakley’s support for cap and trade and health care will amount to $2 trillion in taxes in the next five years.

Ms. Coakley has the advantage—Massachusetts is the heart of blue-state America—but in a way her advantage is her curse. Because she is the candidate of a party that for 40 years has been used to winning, reigning and winning again, she looks like the same old same old, a standard old-line liberal, the frontwoman for a machine, a yes woman for the Obama-Pelosi era.

It is interesting that Ms. Coakley, too, has been told by pundits the past week that her problem is that she’s not emotional enough. She should show passion and fire! She should cry like Hillary!

This comes not only from pundits but normal people, and if you contemplate the meaning it is, weirdly: You’re not good enough at manipulating us! We want more theatrics!

Both national parties are trying to pour in money and resources, but the most obnoxious intrusion must have been the fund-raising letter this week from New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer, who tried to rouse the troops by calling Mr. Brown a “far-right teabagger.” Does that kind of thing even work anymore? Doesn’t name calling put off anyone not already predisposed to agree with it?

In a time when the people of Massachusetts have real concerns about their ability to make a living, stuff like the Schumer letter is just more evidence of a party’s disconnect.

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Politics is about policy. It’s not about who’s emotional and who cries or makes you cry. It’s not about big political parties and the victories they need in order to rule. It’s not about going on some ideological toot, which is what the health-care bill is, hoping the people will someday see and appreciate your higher wisdom.

In a way, Mr. Obama’s disconnection is a sign of the times. We are living in the age of breakup, with so many of the ties that held us together loosening and fraying. If the president wants to lead toward something better, he should try listening. If you can’t connect through the words you speak, at least you can do it through your ability to hear.