WASHINGTON -- Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney. Why is he tied? The empathy gap. On "caring about average people," Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It's the party's only hope of winning in November.
George H.W. Bush, Romney-like in aloofness, was once famously handed a staff cue card that read: "Message: I care." That was supposed to be speech guidance. Bush read the card. Out loud.
Not surprisingly, he lost to Bill Clinton, a man who lives to care, who feels your pain better than you do -- or at least makes you think so. In politics, that's a trivial distinction.
On Wednesday night, Clinton vouched for Obama as a man "who's cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside." Nice phrase, but not terribly persuasive. The real job of Clintonizing Obama was left to Mrs. Obama. As she told it in the convention's most brilliantly cynical speech, her husband is not just profoundly compassionate but near-Gandhiesque in feelings.
Others spoke about what Obama had done. Michelle's job was to provide the why: because he cares. Her talk was a syllogism: Barack loves his wife, he loves his children, he loves his family -- therefore, he loves you.
I have no doubt about the first three propositions, but the fourth is a complete non sequitur. We were assured, nonetheless, that the president is a saintly man, dispensing succor -- health care (with free contraceptives), auto bailouts, fairness lawsuits -- to his people. The flood of tears in the hall testified to the power of this spousal paean. Its brilliance lay in Michelle's success in draining from Obama any hint of ideological or personal motivation.
The problem with swallowing the "he cares, therefore he does" line is that it so plainly contradicts what we've seen over the last four years. Barack Obama is a deeply committed social-democrat who laid out an unashamedly left-liberal agenda at the very beginning of his presidency and then proceeded to try to enact it.
Obama passed Obamacare, regulated Wall Street, subsidized Solyndra because that fits an ambitious left-wing agenda developed in his youth, now made possible by his power: redistributionist, government-centered, disdainful of success, suspicious of private enterprise, committed to his own vision of social justice.
Also missing from her speech was any hint of his outsized self-regard and personal ambition. Is he pursuing re-election because he cares? Or because it's the ultimate vindication of the self-created man who came from nowhere to seize the prize? And whom defeat would turn into a historical parenthesis?
In 2008, Obama tellingly said that Ronald Reagan was historically consequential in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Obama clearly sees himself as the anti-Reagan, the man who reverses the 30-year conservative trajectory that Reagan launched (hence his consequentiality), and returns America to the 50-year liberal ascendancy that FDR began and Reagan terminated.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group