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.

Obama held himself out to be one thing during the election (a bipartisan moderate), and on taking office became quite the opposite. Cons, like Obama, are ordinarily out to deceive people as to their true purposes. But it’s an error to think they come across as sleazy. The most effective ones are unusually likeable and charming, even as they pull off their scams. This likeability is not a tangential characteristic of con artists, either; it is a central one.

“Con,” after all, is short for “confidence.” The con artist works by gaining the victim’s confidence and trust. The successful con artist is so very likeable, in fact, that he seems especially credible, and people who might otherwise be wary and cynical drop their guard around him. They don’t examine him too closely, so great is their desire to believe.


Contradictions are waved away. Acts that would arouse suspicion if they were committed by someone else are excused. Important omissions go unnoticed. Inconsistencies are rationalized. Shady company is defended or ignored. Sound familiar?

The con artist is able to gain trust by using the right vocal inflections to fit the mark (or, in Obama’s case, the audience), changing accents and speech patterns to match. In addition, a con doesn’t usually stay in one place very long (it has been remarked how often Obama changed jobs) because, although people may not catch on to his game all that quickly, he is afraid that if he sticks around they eventually will.

Even though most of us would like to think we couldn’t get taken in by a con—we would know better—the truth is that many people are vulnerable. It’s not a question of intelligence, because some marks are otherwise quite smart. What distinguishes them, however, is that they’ve been disarmed. For one reason or another, they happen to be susceptible to a particular con artist’s brand of charm:

The core … however, was that the mark desperately wanted to believe in the dangling get-rich-quick scheme. ..That is how the classic con is distinct from straightforward fraud: in the con, the victim is actively complicit in his undoing.

Both the con and Obama offer something the mark fiercely desires and show characteristics s/he desperately wants to see. For many wordsmiths (even Republicans such as Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley) that would be their perception of Obama as an intelligent, articulate, and especially a literary spokesman. For others — especially the young — the hook is Obama’s perceived coolness. For others it might be his race and his promise of healing the racial divide (in fact, he embodies this quite literally in his very own bi-racial person). For some, it was and is enough that he be the antithesis of whatever it was they’d hated about Bush.


For so many, it was the rhetoric of hope and change, which tapped into their earnest desire that — just this once — it would be different, and that this politician wouldn’t be crooked or in the thrall of special interest groups. And if the hope is that strong to begin with, the need to believe that great, then all the more reason to deny evidence to the contrary that comes in later. Who among us wants to admit to having been a patsy?

It’s no accident that we call the first 100 days of a presidency the honeymoon period. Obama’s honeymoon is over now, and reality is just beginning for many who fell in love with him. But don’t expect much change of heart soon. A cautionary tale is that of the famous British con artist Ronnie Cornwall, many of whose victims remained true to him:

[S]uch was [Cornwall’s] charm that none of the people he ruined went to the police: one even confessed to missing Cornwell’s intoxicating company.

As time goes on and disillusionment grows, people may come to miss the intoxicating company of the Obama to whom they originally felt so strongly attracted, and some will always remain in thrall to that powerful magnetism.



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