Obama must listen to 'Regina' again
Unlike most, if not all, of my colleagues in Washington, I didn't read "Dreams of my Father," Barack Obama's introspective autobiography on race, before he became president. As a result, my reading of the book now takes on a whole a new flavor than it would have had I picked it up when it hit bookstores in 1995. And the account of a tough-love talking-to from a friend of his that I read last Friday night -- three days after the American people sent the Democratic majority packing from the House of Representatives and delivered a rebuke of his policy -- that left me amazed at its present-day relevance.
The scene is in chapter five. Obama had delivered a brief, but effective, speech at a divestment rally at Occidental College that his friend Regina declared "wonderful" because he "spoke from the heart." But he wasn't satisfied. Obama told Regina that he felt his words didn't make a difference. "So why do I pretend otherwise," he asks? "I'll tell you why. Because it makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill. That's all." Regina pushed back, telling him, "Seemed to me like I heard a man speak who believed in something." When Obama calls her "naive," she let's him have it.
She took a step back, her hand on her hips. "Naive? You're calling me naive? Uh-uh. I don't think so. If anybody's naive, it's you. You're the one who seems to think he can run away from himself. You're the one who thinks he can avoid what he feels." She stuck a finger in my chest. "You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything's about you....The rally is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It's not just about you. It's never just about you. It's about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you. They're not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting bruised. And neither am I."
The Regina rhetorically grabbing Obama by the lapels then is the American people today.
Sure, folks are concerned about the economy, the direction of the country and about some of the policy choices the president has made. But they're also wondering if the man they elected two years ago hears them and if he gets what they're going though. Not just intellectually, but emotionally. And on that score, Obama fails to "speak from the heart."
He failed to do so during his East Room press conference when asked whether he was second-guessing any of his policy decisions. He failed to do so on CBS News's "60 Minutes" when Steve Kroft asked Obama point-blank about his reputation for aloofness. "[W]e were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that -- we stopped paying attention to -- the fact that -- yeah, leadership isn't just legislation," the president told Kroft. "That it's a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together."
No matter how true it is, Obama needs to lose the "failure to communicate" excuse for last week's losses. After all the well-crafted do-or-die speeches he delivered over the past two years, the problem the president faces is bigger than that. No amount of explaining is going to make the American people listen to Obama or understand what he is trying to do if they don't feel he connects with their pain, anxiety and frustration with the economy and with Washington.
You don't have to read "Dreams from my Father" to know that he does. His struggles as the son of a single mother who lived with his grandparents, who grappled with issues of identity and who has worked hard for the success he has achieved is not unlike the stories of untold millions of Americans.
Obama can no longer afford to avoid public displays of what he feels. He must directly tie the difficult choices he has had to make to his own life and to the lives of the people he is trying to lead. I want to hear Obama talk more openly about how those decisions weighed on him personally. I want to feel that he knows that what he's doing is centered around "people who need your help," as Regina said.
In short, if the president's impending mid-course correction is to be of any benefit to him, I want the man who can lift the American people with his prose to start showing them that he truly does have a heart.
| November 8, 2010; 5:25 PM ET
Categories: Capehart | Tags: Jonathan Capehart
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