Audience of one

by Ken Feltman

Everybody loves me, baby, what’s the matter with you?
– Don McLean

Sometimes, it’s an audience of one. Forget the fawning crowds. Just one person matters – standing apart, not committing, not aloof, just not part of the admiring crowd.

Don McLean’s song is about a conqueror who has subdued everyone. His banner is everywhere, his face on all the coins. Everyone is respectful, even worshipful. They fear him. Except one woman. She becomes the warrior’s obsession. Forget about the crowd. He tries to impress her. She remains uncommitted.

President Obama is having days like that.

‘Fortune has me well at hand, armies wait at my command’

Just two years ago, Obama was the most revered political figure in the world, wildly popular at home and held in higher esteem abroad. He was the change. He himself said so: “We are the change we have been waiting for.” He had risen quickly. Others were amazed at how quickly he moved from organizing community groups to the Illinois senate to the U.S. Senate and finally to the White House. Along the way, he defeated Senator Hillary Clinton and her powerful political operation.

He expected to win. He almost always won when he set his mind to it, from becoming editor of the Harvard Law Review to successfully courting a young woman named Michelle. Friends gave him many reasons why he would never become Law Review editor. They told him that Michelle was unattainable. He was always preparing, planning several steps ahead. Unemotionally, appearing detached, he seemed to will himself to victory. With steely cool, he dispatched his foes and enlarged the admiring crowds. Everyone, it seemed, was lining up in support – except for that one person still holding back.

‘Now the ocean parts when I walk through, the clouds dissolve, the sky turns blue’

He was able to fuse his personal gain with the hopes and aspirations of millions. He embodied their almost-religious yearnings to live up to their own dreams. He was Kennedy. He was Lincoln. He was America’s finest hour, proof that we could renew ourselves with one quick vote, evidence that we had conquered prejudice.

Could anyone live up to such hopes? Some cautioned Obama that he was creating expectations that no one could achieve. His response was to choose to give his Democratic Convention victory speech with Roman columns as accents. The symbolism was the closest to Caesar that any American politician had ever come. Today, we know that some Americans were appalled at the imperial display. They became intractably opposed to Obama and remain so, fearing his hubris could get out of hand.

Then he had the bad fortune to add the Nobel Peace Prize to his laurels. Looking back, that was when many Americans began to take a more critical look at their new president. They saw the Nobel Prize as premature and the European fawning as presumptuous. A few and then more Americans began to wonder whether a president who so charmed the rest of the world could stand up for the United States when the inevitable disagreements came.

Despite the fact that Obama’s remarks in Oslo were reassuring to Americans, the curtain had been pulled back. He signaled that he understood the burdens of his office. The audience in Oslo was more reserved than expected. They, too, got the message: This man understand that he was president of the U.S., not the world, and his primary duty was to his fellow citizens. But Obama missed a second aspect of the scrutiny he received due of the Nobel Prize: Obama could no longer count on the unabashed allegiance of those who had voted for him. Many were taking a second look.

‘Angels guide my every tread, my enemies are sick or dead’

Soon, Obama overreached. He misread the initial resistance to his left-leaning proposals, especially healthcare, immigration and relations with foreign leaders. He concluded that his opposition was from the right wing. In fact, many speaking out were not yet expressing opposition but merely concern. Obama castigated those who opposed his plan. He suggested that they were not patriots, not fair-minded, not honest in their opposition. Many had supported Obama’s election. They came from the middle. They drifted away.

Obama presumed that anyone who questioned this policy proposals wanted to derail his vision. He did not reach out to the agitated crowds. Instead, he attacked them. He denigrated those who created turmoil at the August 2009 townhall meetings. The concerned middle morphed into the militant middle because Obama chose to marginalize people who questioned him.

‘Won’t you tell me, what did I do to offend you?’

Next, with his eye on his legacy, Obama decided to resuscitate a dead healthcare bill. He succeeded. But he alienated millions of voters. We know the results.

Most recently, he negotiated a deal to extend current tax rates for all Americans and unemployment benefits for desperate families. The Democratic Party’s liberal base, in congress and across the country, is outraged. The outrage is couched as concern over policy, but is partly precipitated by Obama’s inexperience in working with ego-driven members of congress and the heads of liberal groups. Obama did not consult them, coddle them, make them part of the process. Instead, he just worked out the deal with the Republicans and announced it. He assumed that everyone on the Democratic side would go along. When the left protested, Obama gave them a tongue-lashing. While he was at it, he could not resist attacking the Republicans he had just cut the deal with.

People believe that Obama demonizes those who disagree with him. Slowly but surely, more and more people are being added to the list of demons. Once he demonizes them, Obama need not please them. They are just plain wrong and no longer worth worrying about.

The question is whether this evolving president, seemingly self assured in so many ways, can come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard he tries, he will never please everyone.

The problem may be that Obama cannot please that one unmoved person at the edge of the crowd. But he is that person. He is the audience of one, standing apart, not committing – but expecting everyone else to commit.

– 0 –

Don McLean’s lyrics © Copyright 1971, 1972 by MUSIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA, INC. and THE BENNY BIRD CO, INC. All Rights Controlled and Administered by MUSIC CORPORATION OF AMERICA, INC. International Copyright Secured. All Rights reserved, MCA Music Publishing.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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