Obama's Image Problem: Rock Star or Policy Wonk

It was a low-key event for the rock star of American politics: a poorly lit seminar room at a community college in Mason City, Iowa, full of voters sharing their woes about the health-care system. Yet Barack Obama worked the policy forum with the energy of someone who was hearing stories about the burdens of chronic illness and costly premiums for the first time. "What those people said to me was so amazing," he told a senior aide as they walked out of the event in early April. "It was so interesting to hear how their perspectives were similar and different from the folks we saw in New Hampshire."

Obama started his career as a community organizer, and he thrives when he's doing grass-roots work. It's his appeal, but it also exposes a potential flaw: he's running for commander in chief now, not city council, and Obama's aides are acutely aware that his approach doesn't always translate in a modern presidential campaign. His set-piece speeches are often received in respectful silence, not rapturous applause; his political rallies can turn into policy workshops. In his first TV debate, Obama seemed hesitant, uncomfortable with the time limits. ("These formats don't suit the style of a man who speaks in paragraphs," says a senior aide who, like other advisers and confidants NEWSWEEK interviewed, declined to be named talking about campaign strategy.) Though the ailment is easy to diagnose, the usual remedy—more stage-managing—can kill the candidate. John Kerry and Al Gore, the last two Democratic presidential nominees, bounced from one persona to the next as consultants tried to "correct" their personalities. Publicly, Obama hasn't shown signs of suffering from such whiplash, but the pressure to adapt will only mount.

Obama isn't blind to this. "First he's the rock star who needs to prove he's serious about policy—which is ironic because he loves policy," says a confidant. "Then he's too serious and needs to be glib on TV. It's tough for him, especially because he's so self-critical." Privately, the senator isn't shy about vocalizing his frustration if he thinks he has underperformed. Speaking to the Building and Construction Trades labor conference in late March, Obama tossed off a few lines about union issues before resorting to a tired stump speech that bored even him. Walking offstage, he told aides, "Man, I gave a bad speech." Some advisers worry that he risks being overmanaged. "Language is a tool for him, a strength," says Eric Holder Jr., a former deputy attorney general who has served as an outside adviser to Obama. "We got concerned about people trying to include things in his speeches that sounded canned and predictable—campaign platitudes that we've heard too much of in the past. We were worried that his authenticity wouldn't come through."

One way Obama aims to avoid the pitfalls of professional consulting is to turn directly to ordinary people for advice; it's their stories that get him charged. His approach to health care is a case in point. The candidate long ago sketched out policy priorities in his book "The Audacity of Hope": more preventive care, high-tech medical records and a low-cost insurance plan based on the one for federal employees. Obama's 11-member policy team consulted with eight academics (including brains from Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Emory) and a wider group of up to 100 outside experts. But none of those discussions gave the candidate a connection to the gritty reality that concerns voters. So Obama's campaign invited supporters to share their health-care stories online. Many accounts trickled in, including the tale of Amy and Lane Chicos from Decorah, Iowa. The Chicoses are near bankruptcy because health-insurance premiums swallow up 40 percent of their income. The Chicoses' troubles became a key part of Obama's health-care address last Tuesday.

But real-world anecdotes are an old campaign staple, and they won't save him on TV. There he faces a different challenge: he speaks of hope and change, yet his policies are less radical than his language. His health-care package lacks the boldness of John Edwards's plan, which compels healthy residents to buy insurance. "I've seen a lot of health-care plans," says Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod. "Some of them were very bold, and none of them ever saw the light of day. Real boldness is changing the nature of politics and building a consensus." Just how Obama builds it will depend on how much he listens to others, and how much he listens to himself.