Regular readers of the supermarket tabloid Us Weekly know the photo feature "Stars—They're Just Like Us!" From the current issue: "They Make Drugstore Runs!" (Katharine McPhee at a CVS), "They Walk Their Dogs!" (January Jones, armed with a plastic poop bag), and my favorite, "Their Napkins Fly Away!" (Penn Badgley and Blake Lively eating on their laps).
Being known as "one of us" is not a bad public image, whether you are a sitcom star, an American Idol contestant, or president of the United States. In the great American mainstream, you always want to be on the side of "us," not "them." Unfortunately for President Obama, he's getting perilously close to becoming one of "them." His approval ratings are plummeting, and he is in danger of becoming a disconnected caricature. And whether you agree with his politics or not, no one wants that.
A recent poll from the Pew Research Center points out one aspect of the problem: Nearly 1 in 5 Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from about 1 in 10 right after the inauguration. And the number of people who think he's a Christian has fallen drastically. I think people aren't sure of the president's religion because people never see him going to church. In so many ways, he's a mystery.
Obama "ran as a man apart—Joe Biden was enlisted to folksy him up—and now he must deal with the fact that many see him as a man apart," Maureen Dowd recently wrote in the New York Times. "Too lofty to pay heed to the daily bump and grind of politics, Obama has failed to present himself as someone with the common touch. And to the extent that people don't know him or don't get him, he becomes easier to demonize."
The truth is that Obama seems too aloof from everyday life. We really don't know much about him in terms of his humor, his hobbies, his likes and dislikes—all the things that give a man personality and make him seem "one of us." That's where he needs some help. Here are lessons he could take from recent presidents about connecting with Americans:
Get a smile from folks. Both presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan relied on comedy material sent in from Johnny Carson's and Bob Hope's joke-writers for their speeches. I'd bet money that Hollywood comedy writers are not E-mailing one-liners to the Obama White House. And while Obama has made a few high-profile appearances on comedy shows (which I thought were ill-advised), day-to-day presidential humor is missing. A few funny references to pop culture at the top of a speech can go a long way—and self-deprecating lines that show you can laugh at yourself are even better.
Be seen playing sports. John Kennedy loved to sail; Reagan rode horses; Jimmy Carter was a runner; Gerald Ford hit the slopes in Vail; George W. Bush owned a baseball team; Dwight Eisenhower used to putt right outside the Oval Office. People want their president to have downtime, but Obama seems not to want to be photographed either playing golf or shooting hoops with friends. On his birthday weekend, the president and a few basketball greats such as LeBron James, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson played ball in front of some wounded veterans at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Great idea. But reporters and photographers were barred, which is a shame. He should play golf with kids from First Tee, which teaches character through junior golf, and let photographers cover it.
Pass the popcorn. Americans love movies, and there's a reason the White House has its own private theater. White House movie nights are an easy way for bipartisan outreach. While the Obamas have invited friends over for films, Politico reports that the current White House is reluctant to divulge which movies were viewed and when. Obama should let it be known when he enjoys a good flick.
Get a nickname. Whether they choose their nicknames or not, every president seems to get one that sticks: Bubba, the Gipper, "W," Ike, Jack, Jerry. James Earl Carter was the first president ever sworn in by his nickname, Jimmy. Is it too late for Barry Obama?