For quite some time now, I've been noticing some serious gaps in Barack Obama's communication skills. It didn't seem possible just a few short months ago, but it's started to look like Obama has a "tin ear" when it comes to interpersonal communication. This has implications well beyond the primaries.
Since he became the frontrunner, Obama has wilted under the klieg lights of increased scrutiny particularly as he makes his way through the minefield-laden smaller venues of small-town America. He doesn't seem to have a feel for what to say or how to say it.
It's the little things that have been bringing him down: the flubbed diner and small-town shop visits, snapping at reporters while on vacation or eating breakfast, the lame attempts at flattery and flirtations with humble voters that Obama confuses with small talk. The everyday patter that is the heart of a campaign as well as of life makes him ill at ease and unable to be spontaneous. Worse, he seems to be unaware of how this skills deficit impacts him and his campaign.
He could take a few lessons from Hillary Clinton on this front. She's done extremely well in these smaller encounters and it is in stark contrast to Obama's ability on the podium. She comes across as warm and generous, seeming always to have time for another hug or photo or to listen to another story. Incredible as it may seem, she has had success positioning herself as the next-door neighbor voters like to elect. While Obama speaks of hope, Hillary demonstrates it through her interpersonal skills. It is "Show, don't tell" at it's best. This style connects with voters Democrats need in November. Regardless of how the race plays out during the coming days and weeks, she's been having a ball and it's contagious.
Candidates' interpersonal behaviors and gestures serve as symbols of who they are. They are windows into their personalities. Such skills are extraordinarily persuasive and help voters decide when there is little else to go on. What's more, these traits cannot be demonstrated in the big speeches Obama is famous for. In fact, his trademark speeches have begun to have the opposite effect, reinforcing the view in many voters' minds that Obama is somehow above them, certainly not like them, not a "regular" guy. The speeches have become boring (heard one, heard them all) and have lost some essential elements along the way including warmth. Humor has turned to sarcasm. Empathy has never been his strong suit and it is something he sorely needs as he continues. While Hillary seems to gain energy when she walks into a local store or eating establishment, Obama seems to expend all his energy and electricity at the arena and is depleted by the time he gets back on the trail. He certainly doesn't seem like he's been having much fun.
Those who dismiss such skills as "tactics" the electorate will see through are mistaken. Interpersonal communication is the way candidates connect with voters on an emotional, human level. Face-to-face, one-on-one contact initiates a cascade of barely perceptible and even unconscious nonverbal cues, which contain a rich lode of information that influences perceptions. There is no doubt that, lately, many voters are feeling worse about Obama and feelings are the name of the game. He's taken pains recently to publicly identify more with working folks, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to sustain that in the coming primaries not to mention the general election. Only one candidate gets to be the guy or girl next door. And that candidate wins. (Still doubtful? See: Bush v. Kerry, 2004).
Obama has been presenting himself as a unique entity, special, above the fray in many ways. Yet, the higher he floats, the more distance he creates between himself and the voters he needs to win. And because his interpersonal missteps don't comport with his brand, they're doubly jarring. It's a big deal when a superstar like Obama visits a small town, akin to being invited into a person's home. If you act like you don't want to be there and nibble at your food, you might be considered rude.
Running for president is partly about giving speeches and fighting back every single time your opponent takes a jab at you. Being president, however, is more about the smaller, more informal communications that candidates encounter during a campaign - shaking hands, engaging in intense one-on-one conversations, dealing with dissent, persuading, listening. In other words, building relationships. If it's difficult for Obama to meet and greet the citizens of America, how will he be able to meet and greet the citizens of the world?