Chris Cillizza writes that now people are starting to wonder about Obama’s competence. You may shake your head in wonder at the word “now” and the word “starting”—how could people not have noticed long ago?
But even more curious is the “got elected on competence” bit. Really? Really? And yet, absurd as it may seem, Cillizza’s actually got a germ of an idea there. He writes:
A new CNN/ORC national poll reveals the problem. Asked whether Obama can “manage the government effectively,” nearly six in 10 (57 percent) say that statement didn’t apply to the president. Compare that to where Obama stood just before he was inaugurated, when 76 percent of respondents in a December 2008 CNN/ORC poll said he was an effective manager, and you see just how far he has fallen…
Here’s why that number…should scare President Obama and the Democratic Party. It goes directly to the heart of why he was elected — as an anti-George W. Bush, a person who, above all else, was competent at handling the basic affairs of government.
The poll numbers from 2008 referenced in the first paragraph bear out Cillizza’s contention in the second: that Obama was originally elected as someone “competent at handling the basic affairs of government.” That’s not the only reason he was elected, of course (and it couldn’t have been the reason he was re-elected). But clearly, it was part of the reason in 2008. The million-dollar question is why anyone would believe such a thing even back then of a man who (like him or not, agree with his politics or not) clearly had no track record of handling the basic affairs of government—or managing much of anything else—at all.
What the public perceived about Obama was not a track record, but a powerful impression of competence, apparently powerful enough to be instrumental in getting him elected. Obama was able to project an air of competence, and take advantage of the fact that a great many people seem unable to tell the difference between an act and the real thing.
A projection of competence without a track record requires the ability to resemble an actor in a TV show or movie who plays the role of president. Barack Obama was apparently very good at it. His voice was right. His height was right. His coolness and calm were right. He’d been to the right schools. His color, although unprecedented, seemed “right” also in the sense that its time had come and Americans were ready—nay, eager—for it.
I’ve seen many TV shows and movies where actors play presidents, and I’ve always been struck by how miscast they all seem. Comparing the actor-presidents I’ve seen to the actual presidents during my lifetime, the actors, almost to a person, seem too slick, too smooth, too generic (although Peter Sellers in the comic “Dr. Strangelove” seemed too bland). Real presidents have been, for the most part, far more idiosyncratic, with more complex energy and personality. But on the surface, Obama resembled the actors more than the presidents, and it impressed an electorate that favors role play over reality.