Obama the Heartthrob: The End of the Affair?

There’s been a plethora of articles attempting to plumb the mystique of Barack Obama, especially the strength of his appeal to so many people who usually don’t fall head over heels for politicians.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this attraction is amply demonstrated in this article, in which Jay Ambrose goes on for quite some time about Obama’s lack of transparency, his unfair pandering to special interest groups, his falsehoods, and his ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with him, and then makes the following curious statement:

None of this means Obama himself is something short of very smart and very charming. He is immensely likeable, whatever his performance.

How can this be? Do secrecy, lies, and unwarranted attacks on others ordinarily foster the idea that a person is charming and likeable? Isn’t there usually a better match between a president’s policies and whether people are drawn to him personally as someone to like and admire?

No one blinks when Obama’s supporters find him personally charismatic. Nor is it a shock when his opponents fail to give Obama the Mr. Congeniality prize. But Ambrose is also hardly alone in his oddly dichotomous reaction to President Obama. A similar paradoxical response is voiced by many pundits and consistently reflected in public opinion polls, where for a long time a greater percentage of the public has given Obama higher approval ratings than endorse his specific policies.

Ever since Chris Matthews felt that unaccustomed thrill going up his leg on hearing Obama speak, people have been referring to Obama in terms that indicate an unusually positive and powerful emotional reaction to him, something more akin to love rather than mere respect or admiration. And this seems true even for those like Ambrose, who don’t seem to approve of much he’s done since taking office.

Cynics say this is due to race. They allege that many Americans are reluctant to criticize the nation’s first black president, either because they are genuinely proud the country has finally surmounted that racial barrier and/or because they are afraid of being called racists if they do. But that’s too simplistic. It doesn’t explain the extraordinary strength of the attraction, nor does it cover people such as Ambrose who have no problem roundly criticizing Obama’s policies but who continue to like him immensely on a personal level.

One way to resolve the seeming contradiction is to consider that Obama has some of the qualities of the best con artists. That’s not to say that Obama is literally a con man; he’s not pulling the old Spanish Prisoner scam. But he shares more than a few of their attributes.