Barack Obama’s Beloved “Hail Fellow Well Met” Presidency: Diminishing Returns?

–Richard E. Vatz

We tend to get presidents who lack the most offensive personal qualities of their predecessors. It is similar to the hiring of executives. At Towson we had a terrible provost years ago, and when we chose the new one (who has already been hired to be a president at West Virginia University), we made sure he was as honest and transparent as the former was bureaucratically dishonest and opaque.

When Richard Nixon’s peculiarities and deviousness rubbed practically the entire country the wrong way, we chose President “Normal Man,” Gerald R. Ford, as his successor.* [*Reader “Lefty” claims that it is inaccurate to claim that “we” chose Ford, since it was Nixon who chose him post-Agnew, but I do believe it was Ford’s antithetical-to-Nixon ethos which led to his being chosen.]

Some felt President Ford was not brilliant, so we chose brilliant-but-weak Jimmy Carter as President.

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The weak and affected Jimmy Carter, who gave an exclusive interview to PLAYBOY, quoted his 12-year-old daughter in a presidential debate, and caved in response to Iran’s hostage-taking was replaced by a non-peculiar, strong foreign-policy president, Ronald Reagan.

Last November, when the country had had enough of the inarticulate, uncool and generally unavailable President George W. Bush and the supercilious Vice President Dick Cheney, we chose the rhetorically gifted, personally attractive and ubiquitous Barack Obama who is giving us the “Hail Fellow Well Met” presidency.

President Obama is simply the most likable (by just about everyone) president since Ronald Reagan, and even more people like Mr. Obama. His rhetorical style combines policy wonkishness (out of favor since President Bill Clinton ) with the friendly, “common man/populist” approach; thus, we have the style of the dropped g’s (“buildin’,” “fightin’,” etc.) and the consistent pronunciation of “to” as “ta.” It is an unusual combination, which so far has won him personal popularity while support for his “soak-the-rich” domestic policies (heading toward eliminating income tax obligations for a near-majority of the electorate and raising taxes on only 5% of the population) and weak, ineffective foreign policy (with measurable goals, such as ensuring that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons) is falling.

President Obama’s second news conference was incredibly boring, but it appears that he has still not gone to the “public appearance well” once too often. But was there a hint of a chink in the President’s charismatic armor?

Ed Henry, the politically unpredictable CNN senior White House correspondent, asked the President in his press conference 1. why New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was getting “actual action” on the AIG bonuses in contrast to Obama, and why the public didn’t learn about the bonuses until Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner could not stop them, and 2. whether he (Obama) was being consistent in view of his criticism of President Bush for doubling the national debt when President Obama himself was going to double it again. The President ignored the questions, and when Henry reiterated the first one, President Obama said angrily (for him), “Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak. All right?”

President Barack Obama’s “Hail Fellow Well Met” presidency first ensured personal popularity and policy support. Then, within the first seven weeks, his policy support began to erode. If his actual domestic and foreign policy results do not at least augur some success, the President may find that even his personal popularity will lose intensity and then support, maybe not to the George W. Bush levels, but significantly.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political communication at Towson University

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