The president’s Achilles heel
The president doesn’t just make his fans faint, he cracks them up with a reliability that Groucho Marx or Johnny Carson might envy. The president won the Nobel Peace Prize when he really deserved to nose out Robin Williams for recognition as a “Stand-Up Icon” at The Comedy Awards.
Here’s a part of a transcript of a fairly typical Obama event, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco a few days after the first debate. He was talking about Mitt Romney and taxes:
“What $5 trillion tax cut? (Laughter.) I don’t know anything about a $5 trillion tax cut. Don’t pay attention to that tax cut behind the curtain. (Laughter.)
“During the debate he said, ‘There is no economist who can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion to the deficit if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.’ (Laughter.)”
It’s not just the mildly amusing material. He can say he’ll get rid of boondoggles and bridges to nowhere, and get laughs. He can say he’s created millions of private-sector jobs and get them rolling in the aisles. There may well be an audience out there that has laughed uproariously when he said he killed Osama bin Laden.
The laughter is testament less to Obama’s actual wit than the overriding belief among his listeners that he is witty. When his supporters arrive at an event, they expect to be entertained and dazzled. For them, he is the most interesting president in the world. He exists in a bubble of adoration almost as impenetrable as the security bubble created by the Secret Service.
This is why he can show up for the most important event of his re-election campaign, the first debate, and expect his usual talking points to be considered devastatingly dispositive. The absence of cries of “We love you!” must have been disorienting.
They say that a sitting president usually loses the first debate, since he isn’t used to getting challenged. For Obama, this isn’t just a function of the presidency, but of his existence.
All of his life he has been around people prepared to be impressed by him. President Obama once told a journalist that he believes his own bull---t. It has been his privilege to be surrounded by people who want to believe it, too.
Outside this cocoon, he has shown no great ability to persuade skeptical audiences. His make-or-break speeches on policy issues during his first term usually fizzled.
He has failed to convince recalcitrant congressmen to come around on difficult legislation, or to forge relationships with them so that they’ll do him favors when the chips are down. He’s a glittering object to be admired from afar.
In recent weeks, his rhetoric has been less about persuading swing voters than about mocking Mitt Romney for the amusement of his easily amused crowds. They love it when he talks of Romney hunting down Big Bird, and eat up his lame coinage of “Romnesia,” a line that could have been borrowed from a Bill Maher monologue.
While he shines in front of audiences drunk on their love for him, Obama is persistently at around 47 percent in national polls — in other words, at about the floor of what any Democrat could expect to get. So far, he failed to convince anyone to support him who wasn’t already convinced.
That’s his predicament, and one day his supporters might realize that it isn’t very funny.