Virginia Postrel on Obama: Glamour Kneecapped by Lack of Charisma


Same as the old day?

Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel has a smart Bloomberg column up about how President Barack Obama has inevitably disappointed just about everybody. Sample:

Obama may well win re-election -- for that, he only has to convince voters that he's the lesser of two evils -- but the enthusiasm of his 2008 campaign has certainly vanished.

What happened? In 2008, after all, not just political pundits and regular folks were expecting big things of Obama. So were certified leadership gurus. Warren Bennis of the University of Southern California and Andy Zelleke of Harvard praised Obama for possessing "that magical quality known as charisma."

This charisma, they predicted, would give Obama "the transformational capacity to lift the malaise that is paralyzing so many Americans today" because "a charismatic leader could break through the prevailing orthodoxy that the nation is permanently divided into red and blue states … and build a broader sense of community, with a compelling new vision."

And ripped & cut!

There was only one problem. Obama wasn't charismatic. He was glamorous -- powerfully, persuasively, seductively so. His glamour worked as well on Bennis and Zelleke as it did on voters.

What's the difference? Charisma moves the audience to share a leader's vision. Glamour, on the other hand, inspires the audience to project its own desires onto the leader (or movie star or tropical resort or new car): to see in the glamorous object a symbol of escape and transformation that makes the ideal feel attainable. The meaning of glamour, in other words, lies entirely in the audience's mind.

Postrel concludes:

Where has all the glamour gone?

If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why his supporters are so angry. He should be able to win them over. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, then his problems aren't surprising.

With glamour, any specific action that stands outside the fantasy breaks the spell, alienating supporters who disagree. Even trying to remain above the fray, as Obama often does, infuriates those who want a fighter.

A well-established sales tool, glamour is a tremendous asset if you're running for office. But once you have to govern, it's a problem. Although charisma can continue to inspire, glamour is guaranteed to disillusion. The only thing surprising about Obama's predicament is how few people expected it.

Whole thing here.

Postrel warned us about Obama's glamour problem just before his election, then expanded on the topic in a 2010 interview you can read here and watch below.