He can win in 2012, but a small makeover is in order.
Since we elected Barack Obama, we've learned a handful of things about him that aren't loveable. We're talking about subtleties of character, the things that influence our unconscious levels of approval and affection. Or disapproval and disaffection.
Here's what I think we've learned: Barack Obama is articulate, but he isn't persuasive. He is sincere but we don't feel his embrace. He has wit but his smile doesn't reach us. This president's essential quality is that he seems one step removed. He leaves us with the impression that, no, he doesn't feel our pain. During his first term, he has become harder to... um... imagine hugging.
The Republicans love that stuff. They know that every time someone says Barack Obama is articulate, he loses another vote. Articulate is what schoolteachers are, and only little girls too young to vote love schoolteachers. The 2012 election will be meaner than any election since Aaron Burr walked the new nation's earth. But meanness won't help Obama. Vitriol isn't a good strategy for the aloof president. To be re-elected, Barack Obama will need to work himself over, not his opponent. He needs to re-connect with us, the people who put him in office in the first place.
The question is how can we help him, because not re-electing him is unthinkable. A recent headline in the Washington Post announced that the Center-Left is pulling away from Obama. Can you spell dumb? Placing the Democratic nomination in the hands of anyone but the sitting president would seal a Republican victory.
If the Republicans get the White House in 2012, the Center-Left will look back fondly -- and feebly -- at Obama. Hell, they'll look back fondly at Bush and Cheney. If you think the last Republicans got everything wrong -- from Iraq to Samuel Alito -- wait until you see Rick Perry's version of foreign and domestic policy.
No, it's not time to abandon Obama. It's time to help him connect with the people who voted for him last time. He needs simple, achievable advice. Fortunately, I have some.
The Obama 12-step program to re-election.
- Stop playing basketball. Race is going to play a bigger role in 2012 than in 2008. When Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z come to the White House, make sure the photo op is with Tom Hanks. Do public appearances in very mixed senior centers, schoolrooms, factories. It's ugly out there. An hour online will convince you.
- Let yourself be caught sneaking an embarrassed drag on a cigarette. Make sure there's a video of it that can go viral on YouTube. (A drag on John Boehner's cigarette would have been cool, but not necessary.)
- You're not as good on TV as you think you are. Watch Woody Allen movies. Dwight Eisenhower had Robert Montgomery to teach him how to speak to a TV camera. You need a guide to help you stop swallowing your key words, to pause on the punch lines -- and enunciate the consonants. No one does it better than Woody Allen. A pause will give us the impression that you own the microphone, the podium -- and all the helicopters. Currently, you look like you're trying to get an A on an oral. Presidents don't have to do that.
- Fire Tim Geithner. Appoint Bill Clinton as Secretary of the Treasury. It's not a policy decision about whether Geithner is right or wrong, or will be right in the future. No one likes Tim Geithner. It's not policy. It's not personal; it's not even Geithner. It's the image of Geithner. We all cringe when we see him.
- Stop appearing so damn lean. Get shirts made that are a little fat in the body. You need to look less like a greyhound with zero body fat.
- Speaking of size, your head's too narrow for TV. But the people at 60 Minutes did a great job, and were able to get your pin head to fill the TV frame. Make sure that your own commercials do the same.
- Let your hair grow a little. (John Kerry should have cut his a little every week for a month. You need to let yours grow in -- just a smidgen.)
- Don't allow Bill Daley to get anywhere near the 2012 campaign. His negligence cost Florida in 2000. He's a commerce secretary, not a quality campaign manager.
- If you don't want to appoint Bill Clinton in the cabinet, send him on the road with deficit charts. Think Ross Perot in 1992. Get Milton Glaser to design striking bar graphs. Clinton can hammer away at how much of the deficit belongs to Ronald Reagan and the two Bush presidencies. People love Bill. He can get away with overselling the message.
- Don't say 'my,' don't say 'I.' Presidents say: 'our,' they say: 'the nation's,' they say: 'America's.' Put yourself within the mythology of presidential continuity. That's where you belong.
- When you play golf, wear long pants. In shorts, you look like an unusually tall child.
- By now, you've figured out how much better your campaign would look if, on the day when John Boehner reneged on the budget deal, you'd raised the debt limit and told the Republicans to go budget themselves. The first rule of negotiation is that the neediest man loses. A president who appears to be the neediest man does not serve a second term.
We can't let that happen.