By Sam Youngman - 09/14/10 12:50 AM EDT
President Obama told a small crowd in Fairfax, Va., on Monday that
he would stand in the hot sun with them and “feel their pain.”
He was meeting with a Fairfax family for a backyard discussion on the economy in an effort to improve voter perceptions about his empathy with ordinary people.
Voters two years ago appreciated Obama’s cool, professorial demeanor; it earned him praise, as in “No drama Obama,” and drew favorable contrasts with both President George W. Bush and the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
But it is widely perceived as less appealing now, as the administration has struggled to revive the economy and convey an impression of strong management.
Democratic strategists worry the president is seen as too aloof, and that this gets in the way of the administration’s message that the economy is slowly but surely recovering. An Associated Press/GfK poll late last month showed that only 41 percent of those surveyed approve of the way Obama is handling the economy.
Democratic strategists worry this disconnect will lead to losses for Democrats at the polls in November, when the party fears it could lose control of the House and Senate.
“The problem is he doesn’t seem like he’s always trying to be empathetic,” said one Democratic strategist.
“They have been missing the need for the emotional connection people need in times like this — but they’ve needed it for two years,” another Democratic strategist said.
Publicly, the White House rejects the idea that Obama’s style has led to any disconnect with voters.
“Rooted in his hands-on experience working in Chicago communities confronting tough economic challenges, President Obama has a down-to-earth style that demonstrates to middle-class Americans that he’s willing to take on special interests as he fights for the interests of working folks,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Still, the president’s recent rhetoric and press events, including Monday’s backyard discussion with the Fairfax family’s neighbors and small-business owners from the area, suggest the White House recognizes it has an issue.
The area Obama chose to visit has a median household income more than twice the nation’s average, and he visited a two-income family. Still, the Fairfax family, John Nicholas and Nicole Armstrong and their twin children, are no strangers to the tough economic times.
Nicholas has survived several layoffs at his Internet-services company, while Armstrong recently returned to part-time work as an administrator at a local preschool to help pay the family’s bills, according to the White House. Their savings took a beating during the recession, and they are hoping for a rebound.
But Obama also sought to connect with his hosts by nothing that he and Michelle Obama, along with their two girls, were living a life very similar to the Fairfax family’s not too long ago.
“Michelle and I always laugh about it when people talk about us — I think they forget that we were basically living the same lives as John and Nicole, just — it wasn’t that long ago,” Obama said. “It was, like, six, seven years ago.”
Obama grew up in a lower-middle-class home, and until a few years ago, he and the first lady were still paying off their student loans.
In recent weeks, the president has returned to discussing that history in order to put a personal touch on his list of economic policy positions. Obama still reads 10 letters a day from average Americans to keep connected to what voters are going through.
Some Democratic strategists welcome the White House move to try to put Obama in situations where he can connect with voters. They say the problem isn’t Obama. It’s a White House that hasn’t made good use of the president.
“He is good at this, and in the last few weeks, he’s been very good in what he’s been saying and in being out campaigning for the agenda,” one Democrat said. “Unfortunately, up until the last couple of weeks, the White House has focused more on telling rather than showing.
“These are emotional issues; people want to see him.”
Strategist Jamal Simmons said the difference in styles between Clinton and Obama isn’t a bad thing.
“Bill Clinton was like a protective older brother ready to rush out to the schoolyard, but President Obama’s empathy is more like your family physician reassuring you that he has a handle on the problem and everything will be OK,” Simmons said.
“They are different, but Obama’s approach can still hit the mark.”