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The Times’s coverage of Mr. Obama’s performance in the first debate, which supporters and opponents alike have characterized as ill-prepared or lackluster, and which he in his Denver speech and his staff sought to excuse as the surprising persona of Mr. Romney, misses a central point.
Focusing not on which candidate, if either, I may prefer, but on Mr. Obama’s personality traits, I find the debate revelatory: Mr. Obama cannot take criticism; he surrounds himself with staff designed to bolster a weak ego-structure; his vigorous nodding in the debate indicated not so much sulking as it did a deflation, a drawing inward; he is not used to going man-on-man with another, as was the case with Mr. Romney. If I am correct, several questions arise. Why the closing down within himself, his intolerance toward personal criticism, his thin-skinnedness–all in contrast to Mr. Romney’s evident comfort in feeling at one with himself, directness, looking Mr. Obama in the eye?
I mentioned weak ego-structure, itself taking greater significance by the way Mr. Obama has thrown the cloak of the state secrets doctrine around his government and employed the Espionage Act against whistleblowers. Transparency in government is at a new low. Defensive walls, personal and structural, have been erected, and on the former, which concerns us here, explanation has to lie in family circumstances and Mr. Obama’s clear difficulties in relating to authority.
More than any president, Republican or Democrat, perhaps throughout American history, Mr. Obama gravitates to men of power and, equally significant, thrives on becoming immersed in the trappings of power. Harding, Hoover, Reagan, Bush Two, have all enjoyed closeness with business leaders, yet none via ambiguous psychological attachments. Obama has not been so fortunate. And what passes for bipartisanship in the political realm and accommodation in the economic is the steady need for reassurance, of being praised and even liked. Mr. Romney had a more supportive upbringing.
These traits do not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence with ideology. Human personality is not politically coded; those with solidary family ties may become social Darwinists, those poorly resolving intrafamilial ties may be highly compassionate. But in Mr. Obama’s case it is imperative that, absent Axelrod’s manipulations and Rhodes’s crafting of liberal rhetoric, we see the man removed from the artificial pedestal on which he has been placed in order to evaluate his record dispassionately. This is hardly a plea for Mr. Romney’s election, but it is to say that because to his base Mr. Obama can do no wrong, his policies, such as on banking regulation and job creation, may have discrepancies equal to or greater than those charged to his opponent.
At least in Mr. Romney, you get what you see–and one is then free to make a determination.
Norman Pollack is a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.