March 28th, 2014

Cillizza: “Obama got elected on competence. Now people are starting to wonder.”

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.

43 Responses to “Cillizza: “Obama got elected on competence. Now people are starting to wonder.””

  1. mizpants Says:

    Recently, some poll was reported in which Obama scored high on leadership. I thought, what? Then I read that the poll question had asked whether Obama had leadership QUALITIES. Obviously, this pollster knew exactly how superficial the American public can be, and this question was tailored to elicit the Obama-positive response that it did. People thought: he looks like a leader. He talks like a leader. He could play a leader on TV.

  2. Ray Says:

    Obama had a resume that would fit on a postit note. How could any rational person assume he was competent?

  3. Ann Says:

    I think we got Obama thanks to Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington — the two male actors over the last 25 years or so who have most successfully put across a strong, competent, morally superior persona.

  4. mizpants Says:

    I think you’re right, Ann. Freeman has the voice and Washington has the required dreamboatness — much more so than O.

  5. Paul in Boston Says:

    You forget how bad an impression McCain made during the election. He looked old and worn out and added to it with his stupid performance when the financial collapse hit, suspending/resuming his campaign and generally running around looking out of touch. Face it, there were two bad choices for President in 2008, an idiot with an heroic past irrelevant to the job, and a Marxist Muslim gangster from the South Side of Chicago. For thoughtful people, the question was which one was going to do least damage. For low information voters, aka, the 99% of the public who have lives and don’t bother with politics unless absolutely forced to, the choice was the younger smooth talking guy.

  6. Lee Says:

    I always thought that a LOT of people felt like they were electing “David Palmer” whom they just LOOOOOOVED…

  7. G Joubert Says:

    Think of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner instead. Except Chauncey Gardner with an agenda and a script (usually).

  8. T Says:

    Paul in Boston,

    I agree, but your analysis only explains 2008.


    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Obama projects the appearance of competency.

    As a culture, however (perhaps it should be as a species) we are prone to judge by appearances over and over again. Two illustrations:

    1) In the financial services industry there are many people who will prefer to work with a person who drives an expensive car, lives in a toney neighborhood and eats at expensive restaurants because s/he appears to be successful (even though s/he might be in debt up to their earlobes).

    2) In academics, department chairs are routinely hired on the basis of their publication record and their reputation as scholars. Perhaps a real competency as a scholar but expected to carry over to a totally unrelated position. Personal experience has shown me that such skill has absolutely nothing to do with one’s ability to manage a department and yet faculties commit the same sin over and over again.

    “. . . Peter Sellers in the comic “Dr. Strangelove” seemed too bland.” So how about Chaucey Gardner?

  9. Gringo Says:

    Obama got elected on competence? On what planet does this journalist reside?

    I will once more bring up the experience metric I developed in 2008: Presidents who had been US Senators, with experience in the following: Armed Forces, Governor, House of Representatives, Cabinet position, Vice President.

    Only Barack Obama and Warren Harding checked in with “NONE OF THE ABOVE.” Harding at least had some managerial experience, having run a newspaper for a dozen years.

    Obama had the appearance of competence, nothing more.

  10. Roman Says:

    No one with anyone more than a functioning brain stem elected Chairman O on “competence”. White remorse, Bust fatigue, but no way competence.

  11. expat Says:

    Plus, for the young voters you can add coolness to the list. Think of the American U students who don’t know how many senators a state has and can’t name one US senator.

  12. Artfldgr Says:

    All that glitters is not gold…

    you finally caught up to the subject i tried to start a few years back…

    why the long aside i HOPE neo wont cut down at the knees? i guess you will have to read, but the main is to know what your up against… and for that, there is a historical precident..

    but to teach history no one learns from rare docuents and such… is not something that can be done short.

    do you think one can counter Zinns history in two paragrahs? to require it is to be doomed

    As an aside towards knowing who knows (Desertation): from Dangerous Persons, Delayed Pilgrims: Baltic displaced persons and the making of Cold War America, 1945–1952

    Perhaps most important of all, for it speaks to the postwar development of ethnic identity and its relationship to the civil rights movement and Black power, Balts arrived in the United States determined to preserve and pass on what they saw as authentic Estonian or Latvian culture, motivated by the fear of Soviet-sponsored cultural if not physical genocide in their homelands. They quickly formed culturally and politically active communities, assisted by the fact that the Baltic and Americans narratives of Soviet tyranny complemented each other perfectly.

    Estonians appeared to be some kind of “Mongolian,” while Latvians were perhaps “primitive Aryans.” in the
    works of racial theorists from Friedrich Blumenbach to Lo
    throp Stoddard

    two names i suggest people lookup and read, especially the second!

    The final chapter brings the Cold War to forefront, a
    nalyzing the ways in which racialist assumptions about manhood, military prowess and the fear that war with the Soviet Union would become a global race war informed the admission of Baltic Waffen -S.S. “Legionnaires.” Theincreasingly militarized culture of Cold War America demanded hard men, like the Legionnaires, for hard times. In the midst of the “Red Scare,” their fervent anti-Communism made their loyalty appear unimpeachable — indeed, perhaps even more loyal than some Americans.


    As the Cold War heated up, Americans increasingly worried about internal subversion, of citizens succumbing to crafty fifth columnists and naïve fellow travelers at home.

    As men who knew Communists, D.P.s in general and Baltic D.P.s in particular could serve to contain domestic communism and to alleviate American anxieties about traitors on the home front


    Cold War racial and gender insecurities had helped transform Baltic D.P.s into white, anti-Communist gunslingers on the nation’s “Last Frontier.”


    Balts owed their reputation as men who “know and understand the Reds — and hate them with ferocity” in part due to their wartim e service. After a year of Soviet arrests, executions, and
    deportations — including a coordinated wave of deportations in all three Baltic States just a few
    days before the Nazi invasion

    Adolf Hitler considered Estonians and Latvians racially inferior and thus ineligible for service in an organization reserved for only the purest Aryans. He anticipated their removal to make way for German colonists, and arming them would only interfere with this scheme

    war makes for some strange bedfellows

    From the Baltic perspective, admitting the Legionnaires represented a validation of their narrative of Soviet victimization. It also aligned them with U.S. foreign policy, helping perpetuate American non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of their homelands.

    so, we know a hell of a lot that is going on that americans dont… we could not avoid doing so, as the families were so right about what was happening in the US and made sure the kids read the right stuff so they too would know very well.

    and for those who believe the soviet informatzia that these latvians were NAzis that killed jews…

    the Latvian Legion could not have participated in the
    Holocaust, having been formed after most Latvian Jews had already been murdered. (however, a few of them came from ranks that DID do that, which is why the CIA and FBI had to examine the life and records of each and every legionaire)

    That the Baltic Legionnaires had actually fought the Soviets, appeared an asset in an atmosphere in which Americans openly discussed the likelihood of war with
    the Soviet Union; it solidified their anti-Communist credentials and marked them as “hard” men willing to do anything to fight “Asiatic Bolshevism.” -=-=- The Baltic Legionnaires ultimately gained admission no
    t simply because of the Cold War, but because of the increasing militarization of Cold War American society.

    so HOW far back were we concerned with what the police are like now and how much they resemble Soliztnins police in the Gulag Archepeligo?

    One U.N.R.R.A. camp administrator recalled an occasion when two Soviet off icers visited a Latvian D.P camp in the British zone of occupation in Germany, tryi
    ng to convince its inhabitants to repatriate. Afterwards, the interpret er informed the director that the Latvians had told the Soviet officers that they would return to Latvia, but not in the way the Soviets expected. The interpreter indicated that the Latvians meant they would “come back with arms.

    An Estonian D.P. stated that “I do not want to come to
    the United States. I want to go back to Estonia. I want to go back there and shoot up the damned Communists.

  13. Mike Says:

    He got elected on competence? Competence of what? The man never did a damn thing in his life.

    Cillizza is a jackass. It’s about time we started calling frauds like him out. Idiot. Competence? The man could not get a 7-11 through a weekend . He’s good at destroying. But that’s child’s play.

  14. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    People believe, to one degree or another, what they want to believe, unless and until reality intrudes to such a degree that the belief becomes unsustainable.

    In Obama’s case, the fantasy is now unsustainable for 57% of the population. Which at this point also means that 43% are still in deep denial.

    It was never about competence, it was about pretense, in support of wishful thinking.

  15. Lizzy Says:

    Sometimes I feel like these media polls are self-fulfilling prophesies.

    Step 1: Since Obama started campaigning in 2007 the MSM has been telling us how smart and cool Obama is. Obama=Spock, Obama=Lincoln, Obama=Kennedy and on and on.

    Step 2: When ever Obama makes a mistake or otherwise breaks the MSM’s image of him, they either hide it or attribute to our failure to understand him. Don’t you see? He’s playing 3D, 4D, 5D chess and he’s 6 moves ahead of us.

    This ensures that LIV will assume Obama is smart and totally in control because that’s all they hear, from almost every news outlet and the fawning celebrity/entertainment set.

    Step 3: Seven years later, when the Steps 1 & 2 are no longer very effective, they say: Obama got elected on competence [that we SWORE he had] and now people are starting to wonder [because we can no longer contain the cumulative impact of the past 6 years of incompetence].

    Uh huh. Sure. We’re all just starting to wonder. Just ignore that lady from Alaska who’s had him dead to rights on every issue since running for V.P.

  16. KLSmith Says:

    Remember that during the 2008 campaign, the Democrat talking point was that Obama would be a great executive manager because obviously he was doing such an awe-inspiring job of managing the best campaign ever run on the planet Earth.
    My ex son-in-law was impressed. (gag) I pointed out that actually, David Plouffe and David Axlerod were the campaign’s managers. He shrugged, didn’t care.

  17. T Says:


    “[Obama’s] playing 3D, 4D, 5D chess and he’s 6 moves ahead of us.”

    But they fail to realize that Putin is playing checkers against Obama’s “chess.” A win in chess means that you restrict your opponents king to zero moves.

    A win in checkers means Putin gets to say “king me!”

  18. AMartel Says:

    Chris Cillizza is trying to plant the notion that Obama was ever actually considered competent on the facts. Oh hell no.

    Obama was elected because he posed as competent. Full stop. Obamavoters voted for him because they were posing as open-minded and liberal and cool. Posers elected a poser.

    People who were actually interested in the facts looked at his track record and realized that he was promoted through the ranks exclusively because he looked the part, not because of any great leadership skills, scholarly or legislative achievements (“present”), or sterling executive qualities, and on those few occasions when he wasn’t automatically promoted he just (got somebody else to) backstab whoever stood in his way. A hackosaurus with a big gummy used cardealer smile.

    The posers who voted for him are NOT just starting to wonder if he’s really competent. They never seriously considered that in the first place.

  19. Eric Says:

    “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.”

    Where did this come from? I don’t recall hearing that in 2008.

    That Obama’s executive quality is evident by his campaign – yes, I heard that.

    That he would bring a different direction, sensibility, and appealing personal qualities to the Presidency – I heard that, too.

    But Obama as “a person who, above all else, was competent at handling the basic affairs of government“? That wasn’t part of the sales pitch I recall.

    Also, that George Bush was as an incompetent at handling the “basic affairs” of government is a new idea, too. While George Bush wasn’t some Henry Ford of Presidents revolutionizing Fed efficiency, he was a normally competent day-2-day manager as President as far as I could tell. On the higher Presidential executive plane, Bush also got an awful lot done as an executive while ‘handling’ a very challenging period.

    ‘Better than [strawman of] Bush’ is a default fallback position. What propaganda purpose is there in creating this new angle in the frame of Obama v strawman-Bush?

  20. turfmann Says:

    Barack Obama was elected for exactly one reason: the color of his skin.

    To wit: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

    He had exactly zero executive experience, exactly zero foreign experience, darned close to zero legislative experience. I’m still trying to find a job that he held in which he actually produced something tangible.

    He had lost his license to practice law. He sat in the church of a virulent anti-semite who thinks that Christianity can be legitimately viewed through the lens of Critical Race Theory, and was best buds with probably the worst of the worst when it comes to men who use the pulpit to spew hatred (Farrakhan).

    He’s a man who wrote two memoirs about a life that had hardly even been lived, yet immediately moved to seal records of that life as his first act as president.

    He’s a liar and grifter and a scoundrel – and those are his good points.

  21. parker Says:

    Rather than place BHO at the center of attention, I am more interested in the chattering class that promoted the messiah who turns out not to be a messiah. Everyday more and more people see BHO as an incompetent failure (if not an outright scoundrel) and the MSM is slowly but surely laying out an escape route to cover their own behinds. Someday in the near future they will confess they were duped and HRC really is the One they were waiting for.

  22. Julia NYC Says:

    My experience with liberals and Obama fans is that they are unable to admit they are wrong about almost everything. So Obama will always have a shockingly high support rate. It goes against the grain of these people to admit a mistake. I was in their camp for most of my life, and am all too familiar with how they think.

  23. Eric Says:

    Julia NYC: “It goes against the grain of these people to admit a mistake.”

    One way to do that is a method like pegging currency. No matter how badly the Dems do, they’ll concoct a formula where the strawman-GOP counterpart is always worse in comparison, such as this new retroactive Obama v strawman-Bush comparison that I highlighted upthread.

  24. Julia NYC Says:

    Oh totally. Even if they admit they are sad about Obama they just are so brainwashed to say “well he’s better than the alternative”. That is all they can do. It is most adolescent of them. I never talk politics with these people anymore. Never. Obama and the Democrats are their fanatical religion.

  25. Promethea Says:

    As most of us who comment on neo-neocon have learned, liberals believe they know everything they need to know, and they never ever discuss anything. They just withdraw from the conversation or else say “so and so is worse.”

    Yesterday I had a wonderful lunch with my small group of non-liberal friends. We disagreed about almost everything, including what to call ourselves (conservatives? non-statists? “sensible constitutionalists?).

    We had a great time actually talking about things instead of giving each other canned answers to prove how cool and caring we are.

  26. FOAF Says:

    “Obama projects the appearance of competency.”

    No he doesn’t and never did. As usual, the single-bullet theory is the MFM. They projected it for him and still do. Any semi-honest reporting in 2007 and 2008 would have revealed him as a shallow poseur, a hack machine pol without a single substantive accomplishment in his adult life. You didn’t even have to bring up Wright, Ayers and Rezko.

  27. T Says:


    You and I will have to agree to disagree. Certainly the media was a major player in maintaining Obama’s appearance, but without Obama’s ability to project himself as competent, there would have been little to work with. Deny it as you will, but with a little known background Obama was able to project himself as confident, personable and smooth. It was the consistency of the message that made the con work–not to those who were of a critical mind (and that was almost half of the nation) but to the classic low information and emotive voters who were responsible for his victory. McCain didn’t help in 2008 since he gave the underlying theme (“Well at least he’s better than John McCain”) some credibility.

  28. Matt_SE Says:

    Also, to bolster T’s point: what about the elections before he became president? Before he was on the national stage?
    He didn’t have MSM help in becoming an Illinois senator, that was all him and his political machine (and a good deal of backstabbing).
    Obama’s entire public life has been a concerted effort to be a blank slate, so that white-guilt-ridden liberals could project what they wanted on to him. He of course never refused their help. Obama is conman and manipulator; getting people to want to help him…and I don’t mean by persuasion.

  29. neo-neocon Says:


    But one can easily be a “shallow poseur” and project the appearance or aura or veneer of competence. There is no contradiction between the two, especially if people are swayed by appearances and rather shallow themselves.

  30. Otiose Says:

    Yes, Obama is a con man, but the first person he conned is himself. He believes in what he says and his image. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t lie, but he believes that his lies are good for us little/lesser people ultimately.

    As for what people perceive, a great many people think he’s competent. For my part here in CA I often get a feeling like I’m on the set of a sequel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers or some such movie.

  31. T Says:

    [Obama] believes in what he says and his image. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t lie, but he believes that his lies are good for us little/lesser people ultimately.

    Thus the old aphorism that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Breaking Godwin’s law, even Hitler thought he was doing what was good for the Aryan race, and don’t forget the Spanish inquisition. Good intentions are used to justify a lot of absurdities (the slugabed welfare state?) and it almost seems that the better the intentions, the more brutal the activity they justify. The sooner the right quits ascribing “good intentions” to their “honorable” adversaries on the left the sooner we will join the real fray as Eric and others have repeatedly pointed out.

  32. Ymarsakar Says:

    If the Left thinks there is no empirical truth, then the very conception of a “lie” is meaningless to a Leftist. We’re using different languages here.

  33. Eric Says:

    T: “the real fray as Eric and others have repeatedly pointed out.”

    There’s right and wrong. There’s good and bad.

    But the “real fray” is norm and stigma, winner and loser. Not limited to elected office, but also – and more importantly – the cultural zeitgeist.

  34. T Says:


    Although my example was political (welfare state) I meant the concept of the real fray to be broader as implied in my citing of the Inquisition.

    You are right to point that out however, that message should not be subliminal since politics is downstream of culture.

  35. Eric Says:


    I know. Expansion, not correction.

  36. Ymarsakar Says:

    Otiose, that’s the sign of zombie virus infection there.

    A lot of them look like humans and legally people will claim they are humans, but there’s no there there.

  37. Ymarsakar Says:

    There is no contradiction between the two, especially if people are swayed by appearances and rather shallow themselves.

    Often the people can’t tell the difference because they themselves are incompetent and poorly varnished. Thus even if the proven quality were presented to them, they would throw it away like trash. Thus they select inferior leaders over better ones and call it American quality.

  38. Ymarsakar Says:

    Sometimes I feel like these media polls are self-fulfilling prophesies.

    That is what they are. Polls are propaganda devices designed to mold and control public opinion. This is the opposite of what popular cliques think, which is that polls are a reflection of popular sentiments. Not always the case.

  39. Don Carlos Says:

    I guess you all feel better for your latest anti-Obama vents. But whatcha gonna do? He’s flushing you/me/us down the toilet and all we do is complain and persuade ourselves we’re smarter. We seem to have the same flaws as liberals. Except, of course, we’re losing, and have been for 100 years.

  40. Gringo Says:


    He didn’t have MSM help in becoming an Illinois senator, that was all him and his political machine (and a good deal of backstabbing).

    As the Chicago Tribune pushed for- and got – the release of sealed divorce records of Obama opponents, I would beg to differ with you. Especially when for one of the sealed records, a Trib reporter wrote that David Axelrod pushed for the release.

  41. Eric Says:

    Don Carlos: “I guess you all feel better for your latest anti-Obama vents. But whatcha gonna do? He’s flushing you/me/us down the toilet and all we do is complain and persuade ourselves we’re smarter. We seem to have the same flaws as liberals. Except, of course, we’re losing, and have been for 100 years.”


    What needs to be done is an insurgent, competitive, proper, first, always, and non-stop Marxist-method activist popular-political social movement by the people of the Right, led by expert, dynamic activists.

  42. FOAF Says:

    I stand by my point. Obama is superficially a “clean articulate black man” as described by the man who is now his vice-President. But without his media stooges he would have been punctured before he ever got off the ground. As for succeeding in Illinois without the media, well the poor dear only had the Chicago political machine finagling for him.

  43. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    }}} But on the surface, Obama resembled the actors more than the presidents, and it impressed an electorate that favors role play over reality.

    I think you are correct. The hilarious part is that he played one even better than the actor who WAS one.

    He is not a REAL PotUS, at all, but he does play one on TV…

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