WASHINGTON — Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney. Why is he tied? The empathy gap. On “caring about average people,” Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It’s the party’s only hope of winning in November.
George H.W. Bush, Romney-like in aloofness, was once famously handed a staff cue card that read: “Message: I care.” That was supposed to be speech guidance. Bush read the card. Out loud.
Not surprisingly, he lost to Bill Clinton, a man who lives to care, who feels your pain better than you do — or at least makes you think so. In politics, that’s a trivial distinction.
On Wednesday night, Clinton vouched for Obama as a man “who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.” Nice phrase, but not terribly persuasive. The real job of Clintonizing Obama was left to Mrs. Obama. As she told it in the convention’s most brilliantly cynical speech, her husband is not just profoundly compassionate but near-Gandhiesque in feelings.
Others spoke about what Obama had done. Michelle’s job was to provide the why: because he cares. Her talk was a syllogism: Barack loves his wife, he loves his children, he loves his family — therefore, he loves you.
I have no doubt about the first three propositions, but the fourth is a complete non sequitur. We were assured, nonetheless, that the president is a saintly man, dispensing succor — health care (with free contraceptives), auto bailouts, fairness lawsuits — to his people. The flood of tears in the hall testified to the power of this spousal paean. Its brilliance lay in Michelle’s success in draining from Obama any hint of ideological or personal motivation.
The problem with swallowing the “he cares, therefore he does” line is that it so plainly contradicts what we’ve seen over the last four years. Barack Obama is a deeply committed social-democrat who laid out an unashamedly left-liberal agenda at the very beginning of his presidency and then proceeded to try to enact it.
Obama passed Obamacare, regulated Wall Street, subsidized Solyndra because that fits an ambitious left-wing agenda developed in his youth, now made possible by his power: redistributionist, government-centered, disdainful of success, suspicious of private enterprise, committed to his own vision of social justice.
Also missing from her speech was any hint of his outsized self-regard and personal ambition. Is he pursuing re-election because he cares? Or because it’s the ultimate vindication of the self-created man who came from nowhere to seize the prize? And whom defeat would turn into a historical parenthesis?
In 2008, Obama tellingly said that Ronald Reagan was historically consequential in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Obama clearly sees himself as the anti-Reagan, the man who reverses the 30-year conservative trajectory that Reagan launched (hence his consequentiality), and returns America to the 50-year liberal ascendancy that FDR began and Reagan terminated.
This makes you world-historical. This is what drives the man who kept inserting the phrase “New Foundation” in the major speeches he gave in the early months of his presidency. The slogan was meant to make him the rightful heir to the authors of the “New Deal” and “New Frontier.”
The phrase never took. But the ambition was unmistakable.
All this does not make Obama either bad or unique among presidents. But it does give lie to the lachrymose portrayal of him as the good family man writ large, presiding kindly over his flock.
His pledge in 2008 of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” speaks to the largeness of both his ideology and his self-regard. That’s the far more plausible explanation of his drive to win, characterized by a ruthless single-mindedness that undid the Clintons in 2008 (and at times unhinged Bill) and that has so relentlessly demonized Romney in 2012.
The millions of dollars devoted to that demonization account for some of that 22-point “empathy gap.” Michelle’s soap-opera depiction of her husband as a man so infused with goodness that it spills over onto his grateful subjects was meant to maintain the other part of that gap.
I didn’t buy a word of it, but as a speech, Michelle’s was very effective. After all, what else do you say when you’re running for re-election in a land — as described so chillingly the next night by Elizabeth Warren — wracked with misery and despair?
Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.