OFF THE GRID

How Obama Makes an Omelet

Jun 19, 09 | 9:36 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The strongest material in politics is Teflon. This was a law of political physics established by Ronald Reagan: No matter how dubious his policies were or proved to be, he himself remained hugely popular—a popularity that helped carry the day for his dubious policies.

The two polls that were released this week, by the Times and the Journal, establish, in Barack Obama, a new strength for Teflon. The nation is widely suspicious about how the Obama administration is proceeding on its two biggest challenges—fixing the economy and implementing health care reform—and yet remains just about as staunchly enthralled with Obama himself as it is possible for an electorate to be.

Teflonism usually implies that the electorate is dense and gullible. Or, in the case of Reagan, that he himself appeared so remote from the details of his own policies it seemed somehow unfair to blame him. The guy got a permanent pass for geniality.

The Obama Teflonism seems less a fluke of personality than a method and opportunity. I have argued here in the past two days that the administration’s approach to health care and to Iran is to stress the president’s personality—his rhetoric, in the case of health care, and his angst, in the case of Iran—rather than the particulars of each of these intractable situations.

It’s a sleight of hand. If you focus on the man, on his sincerity or feelings, the issues themselves, however worrisome, become less interesting, a secondary drama. Hence, when he breaks the eggs for his particular state-supported omelet—when he nationalizes General Motors, or actually slips in a single-payer plan—nobody quite notices.

How cynical is this—or how strategic?

Well, both.

The economy and health care are losing issues. They’re technical rather than emotional. In either instance, there’s no clear side, no gut appeal. Whatever approach you take with the economy is going to look iffy until, at the very least, two or three or four quarters later—arguably, the most important thing, whatever you do, is that you don’t reverse course, which, with your popularity falling before recovery begins, you probably will. In terms of health care, the well-funded interests (the only ones who can truly pay attention to such a bureaucratic thicket) will nit-pick to death almost any approach while you try, vainly, to defend your position to an electorate that doesn’t have the necessary attention span to listen to you. If you let either issue define you, you’ll get egg on your face (apologies for the metaphor).

Except if you do it this way: Don’t make the economy about the economy, or health care about single-payers or whatnot, make it about you. If the public likes you well enough—indeed, can’t take its eyes off of you, is enthralled with you—it’ll go along with what you want, even if your approach seems vague, unclear, unfounded, soft. The hero carries the story.

This is pure cult of personality. It’s bound to get creepy—and it’s bound to do strange things to the person whose cult it is. But it may be the way to hang tight on the economy and get a health care bill.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
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