The phone rang a few days after I wrote a piece detailing the concerns of some close to Barack Obama that the rigours of his first 50 days in office had come as a surprise and that the leader of the free world was, frankly, knackered. It was just as the postmortems were being conducted into Gordon Brown’s Washington trip, with its attendant trifecta of protocol disasters — the snubbed Churchill bust sent packing from the Oval Office, the half-hearted press conference and the lousy box of DVDs. It suggested a President not yet ready for the bigger stage.
The phone call was from a contact who counts among his friends two members of Mr Obama’s inner circle. The message was twofold: we know it was a mistake to send the bust back and don’t worry, the Queen will get a better present than a bunch of old movies (Only just. An iPod?) This was a revealing moment. Here was the White House effectively saying: ‘Fair cop, we messed up.’ The Barack and Gordo lovefest in London before the G20 summit showed that President Obama is a quick student of the diplomatic dance.
It also reminded me of the last time I got a similar message, which was shortly before I moved to Washington. I was part of the Daily Mail’s political team and Tony Blair was enjoying one of his by then increasingly common freeloading holidays in the Caribbean, this time with one of the Bee Gees.
After three days of me chronicling the weary Westminster disgust at this cheapening of the office, a very senior official in Number 10 let it be known, via an intermediary, that Mr Blair had been flicking through the papers on his luxury yacht and was rather admiring of the Mail’s coverage. ‘They’re the only ones doing the story properly,’ he said.
In both cases there is the sly admission of guilt, the attempt to massage the reporter’s ego, but most of all the acute awareness of image and a desire to shape it.
Blair and Obama have much in common. Both were outsiders whose politics were consciously embraced, not decreed by birth. Blair might have been a Tory but for his father’s debilitating stroke. Obama only embraced the black half of his biracial identity late in his twenties. Both believe that anyone can be won over if only they can be subjected to the luminescence of their personality. Both are practised press manipulators who schmoozed editors and heartily disliked impertinent reporters. Blair gave his best interviews to women’s magazines; Obama is out joshing with Jay Leno.
Blair-like, Obama cloaks public doubts about his policies in a warm fug of good feeling and suggests that he is only interested in what works, so that critics seem either to be wrong and churlish for pointing out the inconsistencies, or ideological zealots. His personal approval ratings are 20 points north of the support for his latest bank bailout. Americans still don’t like socialism but they do like Obama.
While Obama’s critics (like Blair’s) struggle in vain to formulate a line of attack against the shifting substance, those of us who followed the great showman know that the real Achilles’ heel is the style. And so it is with Obama, but in a very surprising way.
Presentationally, Blair was too clever by half, putting spin so firmly in the public consciousness that by the end, even when he was sincere, his initiatives were dismissed as snake oil. But the cynicism of Westminster correspondents preceded that of the public by several years. The spin worked for much of the first two terms.
If you’re elevating style over substance, you’ve got to get it right — and that is where Obama is going wrong. Blair excelled at selling a narrative of his premiership, Obama has failed to do this so far. He has not explained the causes of the economic crisis in such a way that the public trusts his policy prescriptions to address them. Even with tactical pyrotechnics like prime-time news conferences, talk-show appearances and soft-focus interviews with black lifestyle magazines, he appears leaden, slow to spot crises, blind to ethical problems and ponderous in tackling them.
Don’t believe me? How about Michael Wolff, the liberal media commentator, who wrote last month: ‘We’re face-to-face with the reality, the man can’t talk worth a damn… The guy just doesn’t know what to say. He can’t connect. Emotions are here, he’s over there. He can’t get the words to match the situation.’
Too often, Obama seems to lack that fingertip feel for the politics of a moment; the chimerical understanding of the public mood by which Blair and Bill Clinton displayed their emotional intelligence and felt people’s pain.
Take Obama’s response to the huge taxpayer-funded bonuses paid to executives at AIG, the failed insurance giant. At the press event in which he told the cameras he was outraged, the President coughed and then joked: ‘Excuse me. I’m choked up with anger here.’ Tony Blair at least maintained the act; Obama seems keen to lift the veil on his own confected posturing.
So what’s holding him back? After 100 days I think it may be that race, after all, is hampering Obama, just not in the way we expected.
The President seems incapable of abandoning his campaign persona as an über-cool dude. He likes the sports talk, the basketball games, the Superbowl party; he sometimes exaggerates the leonine roll of his shoulders when he walks to Marine One. He revels in the preternatural cool he exhibits around frenzied media questioning
These are aspects of Barack Obama’s racial self-identity, something his autobiography makes clear he quite consciously crafted. And they’re preventing him from giving too much of himself to the public. Yes, it was important not to get hot-tempered during the election campaign, to avoid being seen as the Angry Black Man. But now, when anger is needed to match the public mood, he cannot deliver, either by inclination or design.
There is, too, a latent arrogance in the way he strikes political poses that suggests Obama is consumed by overweening pride at his victory. The historic election win is banked for all time. But Obama’s aides need to tell him it’s no longer about him. As a president, he is not yet any more special than any number of rubes who have held that office before him.
If he is to be more successful than Tony Blair, Obama needs to subjugate his studiously vague campaign image — which encouraged people to see in him what they wanted — to the needs of government, which require him to be a more sharply defined figure with bumps and edges.
Seeing whether he can combine, as Blair did not, real substance with an effective style will be the great fascination of our age. Obama will be watched closely by a Prime Minister who struggles with his own presentational style, by a Tory leader who seeks to persuade voters that he has the necessary substance, and by this journalist, now heading back to Westminster. I look forward to my first call from Dave or Gordon’s people.
Tim Shipman has been the Washington correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph since early 2007. He is the new deputy political editor of the Daily Mail.