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The emergence of Tony Obama

June 6, 2009

At The Spectator, Tim Shipman asks the question as to whether Obama actually has substance or is it all just spin. He suggests that what we might be seeing is the emergence of Tony Obama.

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.

Shipman concludes:-

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.

Adam has never been greatly impressed by Barack Obama. To Adam, Obama has always seemed more image than substance.

Interestingly, given the tone of this article by Tim Shipman, which posits an interesting thesis, was this comment from Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian commentator, in The Guardian after Obama’s Cairo speech:-

Obama’s speech was a lawyerly speech, a clever speech. It certainly departed from the Bush discourse, but how far away from the policies of the last eight years are the sources it springs from? We still can only wait and see.

What none of us need is Tony Obama, yet it seems that Tony Obama may be what we have got.

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  1. David Brooks on Obama’s Cairo speech « The Inquiring Mind

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