Obama’s Worst Enemy

Despite President Obama’s obvious allure in California and other bluish states, his political foes are popping out of the woodwork nationwide as the political season gears up after Labor Day, begging the question:  Who is Obama’s worst enemy? Oddly, it really isn’t the raging ire of the Tea Party. It isn’t the sequential, cool logic of Mitt Romney’s 59-point economic plan, or even Rick Perry’s rampant boasting about job creation. And it certainly isn’t the prospect that Ron Paul will somehow gain speed and run Obama out of the White House on a platform of abolishing the Transportation Security Administration.

Obama’s worst enemy is himself. It is Obama’s role in which he appears to be most comfortable:  that of a community organizer.

We watched him deliver his Labor Day speech before auto workers in Detroit, at an event sponsored by the AFL-CIO, where he confidently paced before union members, striking his community organizer cadence. He empathized with them. He shared their burdens. He told them he was fighting for their economic security. He exclaimed:  “I’m not scared of tough times because I know we’re going to be all marching together and walking together and working together and rebuilding together.” At one point, he even resurrected his old campaign slogan, referring to naysayers:  “…for everybody who keeps going around saying, ‘No, we can’t – for everybody who can always find a reason why we can’t rebuild America, I meet Americans every day who, in the face of impossible odds they’ve got a different belief. They believe we can. You believe we can.” In essence, he gave them, well…hope. He played his base for all it was worth, evoking the “we/they” class warfare dynamic of union workers while vilifying “the CEO in the corner office.” On TV at least, the union crowd seemed to like his message.

But in a time of raging economic fear—replete with a 12 percent unemployment rate in California (and our 9 percent unemployment nationally), a faltering stock market with the worst September start in recent history, and talk of a double dip recession that may extend two more miserable years—it is hard to believe that voters will resort to a “community organizer” to oversee this economic mess.

However rational a political argument may be made, people vote with their emotions. Drew Westen’s book on this subject, “The Political Brain”, uses research from the fields of psychology and political science to demonstrate the dominance of emotion over reason as people vote. Mr. Westen states:  “The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.” The voters who are the subjects of his research were thinking “with their guts.” This emotional thinking applies to political arguments, policies, and leaders: “We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance.”

Even though the unions clearly supported Obama with his Labor Day, “community organizer” speech, the polls are undoubtedly showing an overwhelming lack of emotional resonance between voters and Obama on economic issues and his leadership generally. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday (9/6), 62 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy. This week’s Politico-GW poll (9/5) basically tracks that result, reporting 59 percent disapproval. More telling, according to the same poll, 72 percent of those surveyed believed America is on the “wrong track”—that’s almost 3 out of 4 Americans.

If it is true that Americans vote from their guts, and given his dismal poll results for economic leadership, Obama will need to conjure up an entirely new emotionally-relevant message to connect with voters on the economy. This feat, however, poses a host of problems. First, Obama has famously branded himself as a “community organizer” who looks most at home in front of a crowd of union members in Detroit leading a movement of union workers, a brand that might work in different times, but fails to connect with voters trying to survive in the current gloomy economic climate. Second, Obama’s handling of the budget deficit didn’t win him (or Congress) many points, and pretty much destroyed his image as an economic leader.

Most importantly, if all political voting decisions are indeed based on gut, emotional reactions, then what economic rhetoric does Obama have in his arsenal to appeal to the 62 percent of Americans—some of whom are the independents who decide elections and even Democrats who might jump ship—who disapprove of his handling of the economy? The nitty-gritty of economic issues and job creation is unforgiving; a President either succeeds or he doesn’t. The numbers tell the story.

His recent economic speech to Congress notwithstanding, Obama simply may be incapable of connecting to voters on the level required to evoke the emotional response that would lead him to victory. Political rhetoric evoking “hope” and “yes we can” have their place in movement politics and can generate a wide scale appeal to voters at certain times in history. But that old familiar rhetoric from Obama’s Labor Day speech just isn’t going to win it this time. It reeks of yesterday, to gentler economic times, when Obama was new and untested, and Americans had the stomach to see if he could pull off his reforms. Now it evokes nothing more than an unqualified President’s lack of substance whose policies generated zero jobs in August. What kind of economic rhetoric can a self-proclaimed community organizer say from the heart that will speak to all Americans? Probably nothing that stirs the hearts outside his union, “progressive” base. And if he cannot talk to us about the economy as a leader, then he is his own worst enemy, creating a vacuum that even he cannot fill.