Thursday, July 22, 2010

Obama's "Death of a Salesman" Problem

With falling approval ratings, Barack Obama is getting advice from all sides on how to "save" his presidency.

In the latest round of parsing by pundits, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post concludes: "The bank bailout averted a financial crackup and the stimulus package pulled the economy back from the abyss. Along with reform of the financial industry and health care, these are considerable achievements. Only the voters disagree."

The reason? "No one is accusing Obama of being likable. He is not unlikable, but he lacks Reagan's (or Bill Clinton's) warmth."

This is straight out of the Willy Loman School of Getting Ahead in Life. The protagonist of Arthur Miller's 1949 indictment of false American values, "Death of a Salesman," assures his sons they will succeed, even though they are not matching the high grades of their cousin who is "liked but not well-liked," as they are.

What would it take for Barack Obama to become as "well-liked" as Reagan and Clinton? The answers from political "experts" are all over the lot--from changing his rhetoric to doubling the size of the space program.

But all this advice misses the point. In the eras of Reagan and Clinton, free of wars on terror and inherited economic disaster, there was time to sell their "Morning in America" and "I feel your pain" personas.

Since Obama took the oath, his has been a fingers-in-the-dike presidency from bank bailouts to stopping oil spills, exacerbated by crisis-creating at warp speed by souped-up media. (Witness the Shirley Sherrod disgrace that, in the past two days, has usurped attention from months of work by the White House and Congress on financial reform.)

"Attention must be paid," wails Willy Loman's wife about the fate of an American failure in the last century. Little did her creator dream that, in this new one, too much misdirected attention would be more of a tragedy than the lack of it.

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