Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Barack Obama Lazy?

The Democratic National Convention is making it clear what the Obama campaign is against. It dislikes Mitt Romney because he had it too easy. It opposes lowering taxes. It's against Republican efforts against abortion. And so on.

There is nothing surprising about these stances. To be sure, they have obtained an added vehemence in an unusually partisan election year, one in which the candidates are serially running phony, if not outright deceptive, campaign ads, prompting each candidate piously to accuse the other of engaging in deception. But what does President Obama want America to look like over the next four years? Forget whether we're better off than we were four years ago. The answer is obvious: a marginal yes. But will we be truly better off in the next four, or will the country simply continue to tread water during an Obama presidency?

This is the question that Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and Dan Balz ponder today. Obama gets a pretty rough pounding from what, by most standards, would seem to be a fairly sympathetic board of examiners. To judge by Dowd's and Cohen's op-eds, the real problem is that Obama is lazy or, to put it another way, something of an intellectual square. He doesn't like to mix it up with the hoi polloi.

In contrasting Obama with the gladhanding Bill Clinton, Cohen says,

The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them—a Democrat—who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not—pardon the cloying term—a people person.

This is the very complaint sounded by Dowd. She says that Obama's habitual pattern of behavior is to

Avoid sound bites and visceral connections because political games are beneath you. Instead of surfing the magic and using it to cow the opposition, Obama would retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop.

He rationed his smile, his eloquence and his electricity, playing the dispassionate observer, delegating, dithering and rushing in at the last moment to try to save the day. A cold shower to Bill’s warm bath. While Clinton aides had to act like sheepdogs, herding the boss offstage as he tried to linger and schmooze issues with crowds, Obama needs to be alone and decompress even after meeting with a few people.

Here, however, we have wandered into the arena of psychoanalysis. Can Obama's problems—if they are really that problematic—be diagnosed as a symptom of an aloof personality? Or might broader trends be at work? Could Obama be grappling with an American political system that has itself become dysfunctional and that he does not understand how to repair?

From this latter perspective, Dan Balz's column today seems to be the most trenchant. Balz suggests that Obama could turn things around with a convention speech that actually lays out a program for the second term, something that Obama has notably failed to offer. Perhaps Obama can perform a U-turn during his convention speech. Obama, after all, has the best pipes of any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Balz says, "Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren't confident that he has a plan for the next four years." It's an amazing testament to how far Obama has fallen since he ran as the candidate of change four years ago. So far, he has been the candidate of the status quo.