Is it that we really don’t like Barack Obama, or is it that he doesn’t like us?

Today’s main inside-the-beltway story comes to me via the on-line edition of the Deccan Chronicle, the English-language newspaper serving southern India’s Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states. To give you the flavor of the kind of stories that they are reading this morning in southern India, the site features articles about India’s planned mission ...

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Today's main inside-the-beltway story comes to me via the on-line edition of the Deccan Chronicle, the English-language newspaper serving southern India's Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states. To give you the flavor of the kind of stories that they are reading this morning in southern India, the site features articles about India's planned mission to Mars in 2030, the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of political scandals, floods in Vietnam, a wonderfully wry blog comparing Indian and Chilean disaster-response, and a piece on President Barack Obama's decision to avoid a visit to India's Golden temple due to fears that if he were to do so and wear as is customary a head scarf that it would make him look like a "closet Muslim."

Accompanying the Obama Golden Temple story are two other sidebars picked up from the U.S. media. The first is entitled, "Obama, the vibrator is here!" It begins, "U.S.-based news and gossip website Gawker.com doesn't seem to like Obama too much because they are offering an Obamarator (a vibrator which looks like the president) as a prize for a reader who uses his imagination and sends in a really erotic story featuring the president." While I'm not sure I agree with the Chronicle's interpretation -- I think you could just as easily conclude that the folks at Gawker may like the president a lot, maybe even too much -- it's good to know that thanks to the Internet the people of Karnataka are getting their full portion of Obama-shaped vibrator stories to go with their morning bowls of idli.

The other story that is accompanying the "closet Muslim" piece is picked up from Women's Wear Daily. It's called "Obamas are indifferent hosts" and begins like this:

Today’s main inside-the-beltway story comes to me via the on-line edition of the Deccan Chronicle, the English-language newspaper serving southern India’s Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states. To give you the flavor of the kind of stories that they are reading this morning in southern India, the site features articles about India’s planned mission to Mars in 2030, the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of political scandals, floods in Vietnam, a wonderfully wry blog comparing Indian and Chilean disaster-response, and a piece on President Barack Obama’s decision to avoid a visit to India’s Golden temple due to fears that if he were to do so and wear as is customary a head scarf that it would make him look like a "closet Muslim."

Accompanying the Obama Golden Temple story are two other sidebars picked up from the U.S. media. The first is entitled, "Obama, the vibrator is here!" It begins, "U.S.-based news and gossip website Gawker.com doesn’t seem to like Obama too much because they are offering an Obamarator (a vibrator which looks like the president) as a prize for a reader who uses his imagination and sends in a really erotic story featuring the president." While I’m not sure I agree with the Chronicle‘s interpretation — I think you could just as easily conclude that the folks at Gawker may like the president a lot, maybe even too much — it’s good to know that thanks to the Internet the people of Karnataka are getting their full portion of Obama-shaped vibrator stories to go with their morning bowls of idli.

The other story that is accompanying the "closet Muslim" piece is picked up from Women’s Wear Daily. It’s called "Obamas are indifferent hosts" and begins like this:

Socialites in Washington, D.C. are very annoyed with their president and first lady. They accuse President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle of cold shouldering them at parties.

The magazine Women’s Wear Daily has done a story on how the Obamas unlike the Clintons, Bushs and even Reagans refuse to stand in a formal receiving line and receive guests at the White House. At White House events as well as other dos, they always stand cordoned off behind velvet ropes and just smile, wave and acknowledge the minions from afar.

The story — which doesn’t really sympathize with the "poor socialites" who are not feeling the love from their first couple — ends with the line "Who would have thought a day would come when they would miss former President George W. Bush!" I’m not sure whether the "they" refers to the socialites or all Americans, but I have to admit the story resonated with me even more strongly this, the second time I have seen it this week.

The image of the Obamas cordoned off from their own receptions has stuck with me because it offers such a potent illustration of one of the core problems the president is having at the moment. It is not a matter of policy. Nor is it even, as some of the president’s advisors would have you believe, a matter of nasty partisan attacks funded by secret SLORC donations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It is that the president who rose to his current high office because he had a story that warmed our hearts and an undeniable charisma, is losing the most important battle any politician can face at the moment — the battle of likeability.

Admittedly, to serious minded people, the issue of presidential likeability may seem as dismissible and unseemly as press coverage of the Obamarator, but as is often the case, serious minded people would be wrong. First of all, given public attitudes toward the government and the president, even the Obamarator itself provides many useful metaphors worth considering for what they say about the attitudes and impulses of the U.S. body politic. But likeability is the most fundamental bond a president can have with his public, the connection that allows him to lead, persuade, weather conflict and mobilize support. When presidents have it — and Ronald Reagan is the man whose picture shows up when you look up presidential likeability in the dictionary — it forgives almost all sins. (How else do you explain Reagan’s ability to talk about fighting "big government" while expanding government to unprecedented size and still get away with it?) When presidents lose it — Nixon and Carter come to mind — they are lost. It is ineffable and a source of more power than all the armored divisions in the U.S. Army.

There are many factors that compromise likeability. Being a criminal is one, as Nixon discovered. But he wasn’t helped much by his special brand of shifty paranoia, either. Being a pedant and a scold didn’t help Carter. And neither did the perception that he wasn’t doing a very good job. (America loves a winner. As for the seemingly impotent… well, that’s a story that will be told in Obamarator sales data in the months ahead.)

Obama right now looks a little desperate, tense and brittle. He has a bit of that Carteresque school-marmishness about him. But he also is giving off a different vibe that may be doing more damage than all this. He has, as reported in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily and Hyderabad’s favorite English-language daily, lost the human touch… or perhaps, we seem to be wondering, he never had it. Maybe during the last election cycle all the emotion we felt was coming from us. Maybe we were projecting on him the qualities we wanted in a post-Bush president. But today, we feel like he’s set himself apart, like maybe he doesn’t like us. And while that may be a very attractive trait in a man if you are a self-destructive single woman, it’s not so great in a political leader, especially at a moment of real national self-doubt.

Who knows, maybe it will pass. But the fact that the exits at the White House are as crowded with employees leaving the building as throngs departing a Deccan Chargers cricket match after a disappointing loss to the Chennai Super Kings, suggests that the president may not even be instilling a huge degree of loyalty among many members of his senior staff. That the president’s cool is now casting a chill felt deep in the heart of the sub-continent explains why we are actually now starting to hear what the editors at the Deccan Chronicle understandably find so shocking: the very first strains of Bush revisionism. The warmth of the reception for Condi Rice on her recent book tour is one fresh symptom of this. The fact that yesterday one of Washington’s most thoughtful analysts suggested to me at lunch that he was seeing new signs of life among the Jeb Bush for president contingent is another. Obama’s struggles are also a reason that we are seeing such a huge resurgence of popularity for the touchy-feeliest of all American presidents, Bill Clinton.

As other stories in the Chronicle (and U.S. history) suggest, perhaps above all other things Americans want a president who makes them feel good about themselves. Even one that is made of plastic. Even one that is battery operated. It’s time for the president to reach out and touch the United States again… and this time like he really means it.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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