WASHINGTON — The former Bill Clinton adviser — a senior guy, a respected guy — doesn’t mince words.
“A lot of the American public has checked out on (President Barack) Obama,” he says. “He’s got a lot of things going against him right now.”
We’re in the Clinton man’s office, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, and just a short walk from the White House, where he used to work. His office walls are covered with photos of him with his former boss, as well as political luminaries from around the globe.
He’s a big guy, gregarious, like his former boss — and, like his former boss, a Democrat until the day he dies.
But to him, and not a few other Democrats these days, things don’t look good for Barack Obama. Not at all.
The papers, last week, were full of the sorts of stories that can make Democratic blood run cold. On a three-day bus tour through Virginia and North Carolina — two states he must win to be competitive in next year’s presidential election — Obama encountered little of the mania that attended his every move in 2008. At one rural North Carolina barbecue joint, some diners took the opportunity to give the President a finger-wagging talking-to. Others didn’t even bother to stand up to greet him, or shake his hand.
“Yeah,” said the Clinton man, nodding his head as the unhappy three-day tour is raised. “Obama … he’s just not a tactile politician. Clinton, he was. If someone was upset, he’d put his arms around them and give them a big hug.
“Obama is a good dad. He’s got a lovely wife. But he has to do a better job at connecting with people. He just isn’t connecting.”
In the business of politics, “not connecting” with voters isn’t necessarily always fatal (Stephen Harper) — but it usually is (Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff).
When times are tough, in particular, citizens want to feel that their leaders understand what they’re going through. They want someone to share their pain. Obama, they feel, doesn’t.
The Clinton man reflects. Obama is capable of delivering speeches with power and grace and authenticity. The president is calm when under fire, perhaps more so than any president in recent memory. He radiates intelligence and integrity.
But, acknowledges the former Clinton confidante, none of that matters so much in 2011. Voters — including Democratic voters — wanted results, and they haven’t gotten them.
Obama’s health-care reform was diluted by the for-profit health conglomerates until it was virtually meaningless. And the Bush-era wars that were supposed to come to an end largely haven’t.
Worst of all, says the Democratic Party icon, Obama’s White House let the president be defined by the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress.
Says the Clinton guy: “He let the other side paint him as a big government liberal. When he isn’t.”
Beset by economic woes, battered by a perception that he hasn’t delivered the “hope” he promised, what is Barack Obama to do?
“Obama spent a lot of political capital on big propositions, but he hasn’t delivered results,” says the Clinton man. “He has to get better, fast, at delivering tangible results.”
And that’s not all, he says.
“A presidential candidate comes into your living room every night via the TV. There has to be an emotional bond between the candidate and the voter. It’s crucial that you establish that rapport.”
Can Barack Obama, the candidate who changed history — the candidate who convinced Americans that “Yes, we can” — recapture what he has seemingly lost?
Is there time left to start delivering results, and reconnect with millions of Americans who feel he has let them down?
The Clinton guy leans back in his chair, and looks through the window in the direction of the White House.
“I don’t know. It’s going to be tough.”