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Obama must listen to 'Regina' again

By Jonathan Capehart

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.

By Jonathan Capehart  | November 8, 2010; 5:25 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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I always dismissed the political pundits who declare that a successful President has to emote and "feel your pain", and I always thought it was a President's actions and priorities that mattered, not how demonstrative they are about their feelings.

However I'm beginning to rethink my position after the collective hissy fit thrown by the American electorate, in which they hammered a President and party that took meaningful steps to ease the economic pain of regular Americans, extend unemployment benefits, aid hemorrhaging state budgets, regulate the financial industry, and expand access to healthcare for all.

It now seems apparent that a populace that's been brought up on Dr.Phil, Oprah and Phil Donahue expect a President who's as wise as Solomon and as emotive as Glenn Beck! And if President Obama decides not to succumb to act out in order to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the electorate, I would respect him for taking the high road even if he didn't get re-elected.

Posted by: sambam | November 8, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Jonathan you sound like a parrot. Mimicing the current meme that Obama does not feel my pain. I support Obama. I like him just the way he is. If he started bawling on tv just to satisfy the dc crowd then I will vote for Palin in 2012.

Posted by: adaniels1 | November 8, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

The "Dr.Phil, Oprah and Phil Donahue" populace you describe is Obama's electorate, not the other way around.

Posted by: dfoster1 | November 8, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Obama no more wrote that book than he writes his speeches. Are you naive, or are we "pretending" ?

Posted by: happyacres | November 8, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Happyacres, you must be thinking of Mrs. Palin. Regarding the President: he has done quite a bit for us middle class people although he and his party haven't publicized it enough. Realizing that the racists out there (Fox News) would vilify him if he got all emotional, or angry or showed weakness, he has routinely stayed behind his ordinary cool and subdued persona which is not an act. No matter what he does he can't win. He has done more POSITIVE things in two years than Bush did in 8 so he deserves to be given some latitude to accomplish things various groups expect of him. Hopefully he has learned that the R's won't support him no matter what and the D's should just do the things they can do without support. In addition, yes the house went R, but the R's are acting like they also won the Senate. They didn't have a complete mandate to be the a-holes they are already broadcasting they are planning to be.

Posted by: susanwhiteaker | November 8, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

"He that loves his mother and father more than me is not worthy of me." God

Posted by: jobandon | November 9, 2010 1:35 AM | Report abuse

I agree with adaniels1 - The site of Boehner crying on TV was over the top. Give me a ^(*&^(*&^ break! I do not want an emotional president showing gut-wrenching emotions at a press conference. Sure I want him to identify with the American people and their difficulties, and I think Obama does. But first I want him to be intellectual and cool and make decisions based on what is good for the country and not have that judgement clouded by the perception that we want to see him have a display such as Boehner's - imagine a president crying before the world because "he had to do a lot of miserable jobs growing up" - EEEECCCCHHHHH !!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: PlumHunter | November 9, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

" Barack Obama's introspective autobiography on race, "

it's a "memoir", sweetie. Obama had to change it because he made stuff up.

Posted by: newagent99 | November 9, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Obama needs to lose the "failure to communicate excuse" because it isn't true. His problem is his policies are perceived as being more about "social justice" aka "socialism" than about addressing the concerns of the majority of Americans

As Fareed Zakaria pointed out on Bill Maher's Real time last Friday, the fundamental political problem with Health Care reform was that it addressed the problem of access for the 15% of uninsured more than it addressed the cost issues which were the primary concern of 85% the public.

"FAREED ZAKARIA, TIME AND CNN: I think it stretches imagination though Bill to think that fundamentally, if you look at this election and what happened, basically as you, as you mock them, Independents broke, broke for the Republicans. It’s difficult to imagine an Independent saying, “I’m going to vote for extremely right-wing Republicans because Obama wasn’t left-wing enough.” Right? You see what I’m saying? They’re saying, instead of saying, “I’m going to vote for Obama who was left of center, I’m going to go to the extreme right of the political spectrum.” I think it’s more plausible to say that they perceived rightly or wrongly that he had moved too far left. My view, the going doing healthcare itself gave people a signal he was concerned about the kind of things Bill O’Reilly was saying: social justice. Because look, fundamentally, 85 percent of the country has healthcare and worries about cost. Fifteen percent doesn’t and worries about access. What he did was he dealt with the issue of the fifteen percent before he dealt with the issue of the 85 percent."

Fundamentally, Obama over promised on health care reform. You can't simultaneously:

1. Insure everyone
2. Reduce Costs
3. Everyone who likes what that have currently gets to keep it.

The (correct) perception is that the middle class and upper class people with insurance will end up subsidizing the extension of care for the uninsured through things like the 1099 issue and the new restrictions on Health Savings accounts.

Add to that the fact that his foreclosure prevention efforts have completely failed due to the fact that subsidizing the banks so they could "earn" their way back to health was a higher priority for the Treasury department and here we are.

Posted by: jnc4p | November 9, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

The title of the book is "Dreams FROM My Father".

Posted by: gjtitus | November 9, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

The snarky comment about Boehner crying on TV just reaffirms this independent's view of left left liberals. (I voted democratic) Anyone that has started with very little, worked their tail off and became successful, in anything, would understand the emotion behind the tears. I suspect the writer has had their life served up on a silver platter. Ick is right!
I think that we need universal health care. Although I also know that we have to pay for it. Letting seniors and union workers not pay for their gold plated health care and advantage medicare plans until @2019 is disgusting. I'm on medicare and carry my own private insurance. Why should we oldsters and union folks not share in the cost of universal coverage? Why should medicare advantage folks get free gym, spas etc. while the rest of the country pays for it and many have no health insurance?

Posted by: Fergie303 | November 9, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

President Obama will not connect on the level that Mr. Capehart advises. Not because he doesn't want to but because he can't. He is not 'cool' he is COLD. To me he is a border line sociopath. Not the kind that commits crimes of passion with no remorse. The kind that is cunning and emotionless. Who pretends to have compassion in order to achieve his goals.

No one can fake the real thing for long. He is cold as ice. Too bad for us. We fell in love with an idea. Turns out he was not the ONE he is the WRONG ONE.

Posted by: rusino1 | November 9, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

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