Playing the Indian Card

Friday, September 07, 2012

Does Obama Want to be President?

Most commentators seem to think Obama’s acceptance speech was underwhelming. This is surprising, and interesting, because Obama’s reputation is built above all on his skills as an orator.

Which makes me wonder: does Obama still want to be president?

It almost goes without saying that at some level he does not; otherwise he could have generated more enthusiasm, more of his special skills, for this speech. It is in the end the only possible hypothesis here.

This is not surprising, given the stresses of the presidency. And it has happened before. Just last cycle, a lot of people complained of John McCain that he was not ready to do what it took to get elected. Others made the same complaint, in the primaries, about Fred Thompson. The same has been said in the past of Ted Kennedy, running against Jimmy Carter; Bob Dole, running against Bill Clinton; Bill Bradley, running against Al Gore. Candidates and politicians can lack enthusiasm for the job, just like anyone else.

Obama does not really have the personality to enjoy politics over the long term. You need to be the perfect extravert, always ready to chat up a stranger. You have to enjoy schmoozing, and cutting deals. Obama is not that type at all, as confirmed by many rumours around Washington, and now by Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics. He is not a natural negotiator, and he needs a lot of time to himself. His choice of Joe Biden, the ultimate ward pol (and not the more obvious choice, Hilary Clinton), as running mate may reflect his own awareness of his weakness in this regard.

Of course, given the chance to be America’s first black president, he was able to muster the enthusiasm he needed. But for a second term? The emotional payoff may no longer be sufficient. He has even stated, publicly, that he would not mind being a one-term president, if he got the right things done. If he loses now, his legacy is secure: he will always be the first black president. He will always be the one who gave the US universal health care, something presidents have been trying to do, and failing to do, since Nixon. He will always be the president who got Osama Bin Laden, and the president who ended the war in Iraq. In a second term, he probably faces a Republican-dominated congress, a bad economy, and an intractable debt problem, a “fiscal cliff”; frustrations are likely to multiply and accomplishments will not be so easy to come by.

Those around him, and the party, will of course have been pressuring him heavily all along to stay on; it is the done thing. Incumbency is not something to give up lightly. Now—at the moment of accepting the nomination—it is really too late to change his mind. Although it was really too late at least a year ago; he needed to give any successor proper notice to gear up a campaign.

An awareness that Obama’s heart is not really in it may explain the odd sense of panic that seems to be emanating from the Democratic campaign, which does not make sense based on either the polls or the electoral college vote. They may be worried, not only about Obama’s performance in speeches like this, but in the upcoming candidate debates. They have been trying to make the campaign about Romney and Ryan. This does not make much sense in a re-election campaign, but it may make some instinctive sense if you want to move the spotlight off your candidate. They may also fear Obama going off-script and his frustrations showing through.

The decision to move the acceptance speech from Panther/Bank of America stadium to a smaller venue suggests the organizers themselves feared the speech would not be very strong (although, of course, there are other possible reasons). The foul-up over the platform suggests again that Obama was, in the first place, not engaged, and in the second, not entirely prepared to be a team player. He had not taken an active interest in the platform to begin with, and, once a problem was suggested, he demanded changes overruling both the platform committee and the convention.

The happy golfer.

He was looking for excuses, perhaps, not to try.

All pure speculation, of course. God knows what chaos might be going on behind the scenes in the Obama campaign. I don’t.

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