Weisberg: Why Obama's Cool Comes off as Cold

In electing a Republican senator, the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts were surely voicing their unhappiness over many things: unemployment, bank bailouts, the health-care plan Congress was on the verge of passing, and the expansion of government in general. But if you believe the polls, they were also expressing a degree of discontent, echoed around the country, with the president himself. Few people hate Barack Obama the way many did both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But Middle America isn't feeling the love, and it may be for reasons that have more to do with his temperament than his policies.

The way Obama connects to people is the opposite of a Clinton, a Bush, or a Ronald Reagan. Those presidents were all relaters. They bonded with people based on common feelings, experiences, and interests. Reagan did this best through the medium of television. Bush did it best in person. Clinton could do it blindfolded and hanging upside down. For all three, connecting emotionally was part and parcel of their political skill. As a result, people tended to love them or hate them, without much neutral ground in between.

Obama's coolness and detachment put him in a different category that includes Lincoln (on the positive side) and Jimmy Carter (on the negative). His relationship with the world is primarily analytical rather than intuitive or emotional. As he acknowledged in his interview with George Stephanopoulos the day after Scott Brown's victory, his tendency to focus on substance can make him seem remote and technocratic. So while many people deeply admire him, few come away from any encounter feeling closer to him. He's not warm, loyal, or deeply involved with others. His most fervent enthusiasts tend to express affection more for the ideas he represents—America transcending its racial history, a fairer society, rational decision making—than for the man himself.

A sense of separateness from other people, organizations, and causes runs through Obama's biography. In Chicago, where I grew up, one learns to quickly place people in relation to the city's big political narrative. There was the old ethnically based Daley machine. There were the reform liberals (including my parents and their friends) who challenged it. There was the Harold Washington movement, which brought blacks into the mainstream and finally finished off the machine. Since 1989, the second Daley has presided over a synthesis of these elements. If you know this story, it's easy to locate anyone from Chicago in relation to it. The funny thing about Obama was he somehow passed through without forming the normal attachments.

This sense of remove characterizes Obama's relationship with every institution he's been part of, from the Punahou School in Honolulu to the U.S. Senate. Obama never relinquished his unum to the pluribus. The only place he has described a feeling of community is in Trinity Church in Chicago, while listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons. But even there, as he describes in Dreams From My Father, his sense of belonging was tinged with ambivalence: "part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion somehow simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us."

Obama's self-interpretation is so persuasive that it has largely preempted other interpretations. Telling his story in relation to his missing father, the son explains how in finding his identity he grew from anger and cynicism to deep social commitment. The lack of deep attachments in his life, however, is a different issue. To speculate, it may have more to do with his relationship with his mother. When Barry Obama was 10, his mother sent him from Indonesia back to live with her parents in Hawaii. She returned there after her second marriage ended, but when she went back to Indonesia a few years later, her teenage son chose to stay in Hawaii. This loving but physically distant relationship seems to have left Obama self-reliant to an unusual degree.

For a politician, emotional self-sufficiency is both asset and liability. On the positive side, it supports Obama's rationalism, his level-headedness in crisis, and his dispassionate decision making. On the negative, it can read as cold, aloof, or arrogant. It's healthy that Obama doesn't need the roar of the crowd for validation. It's a problem that the crowd seems to need more from him than he is able to provide.

Weisberg is chairman of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy.