Ten Miles Square


February 28, 2012 10:00 AM Barack Obama: Cold Fish or Warm Fuzzy Teddy Bear?

By John Sides

In James Fallows’s interesting take on the Obama presidency, he discusses the notion that Obama is “cold.”  He refers to this as one of “Barack Obama’s particular versions of the weaknesses every president brings to office” and one of “the diagnoses that I heard, and have myself observed.”  Two illustrative quotes from this discussion:

“President Obama’s extra-high intellectual capacity is simply not matched by his emotional capacity,” I was told by someone with long experience in the executive branch. “Surprisingly for someone who led such an inspirational campaign, he does not seem to have the ability to connect with people…”
…Mondale said that until the midterm elections, Obama was seen—incorrectly, in Mondale’s view—as an “aloof and diffident president in the eyes of those who were suffering.” But he has now, Mondale thinks, changed his tone.

This and similar assessments of Obama, which have been repeated over and over by political observers and pundits, were and are absolutely at odds with what a large majority of Americans think.  Here is some data from Pew:


In the January 2012 poll, 71% said Obama is “warm and friendly” rather than “cold and aloof.”  He is viewed favorably on related dimensions as well, such as “good communicator” and “cares about people like me.”  He is viewed more favorably on these dimensions than his overall job approval—which has been hovering in the 40s for a while and is only now approaching 50%—would suggest.  Moreover, there has been no meaningful shifts in opinion on these dimensions since June 2010, despite Mondale’s suggestion that Obama’s behavior has recently changed.

In short, while pundits often blame Obama’s struggles on his cold, aloof personality, most of the very public whose middling approval ratings attest to Obama’s struggles see him as anything but cold or aloof.

I am interested in the sources of this disjuncture between political leaders and commentators, on the one hand, and the public, on the other.  One possibility: the public’s view is simply mistaken.  The public sees a stage-managed view of the president.  He sings, he has a cute dog, he’s a good father and husband—he’s just likable.  But in his private interactions with staff, members of Congress, reporters, and so on, he is much cooler and distant.  Fallows’s piece reviews some of those tales.  Here’s another.

But could the public’s view be correct?  Perhaps political leaders, journalists, and others are simply assuming that how the president treats them indicates his true personality.  In some sense, this is Obama’s claim.  Because he fails to schmooze or stroke egos, these people get miffed.  Their irritation leads them to misinterpret Obama’s behavior as somehow driven by his character rather than, as he says, a desire to spend time with his family or the belief that schmoozing pays few dividends.

The obvious response is: “Why not some of both?”  Yes, sure, but that’s sort of a cop-0ut.  Both explanations may contain truth, but in equal measure?

I don’t have an answer, obviously.  But it seems important for commentary that discusses the “cold, aloof Obama” to engage the survey data (Fallows doesn’t) and, even better, to ponder why voters seems to think Obama is so much warmer than Beltway denizens believe.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.


  • Jamie on February 29, 2012 9:40 AM:

    I guess the Village is pining away for those old days Warm and Fuzzy Dick Cheney. It's increasingly difficult to figure out which planet the villagers think they live in.

  • mrgavel on February 29, 2012 10:53 AM:

    Both Clinton and Obama are very bright people who, understandably, would rather spend time with people who are friends and relatives than beltway denizens. This ticks off the people who think that they matter more than the rest of us and therefore find something to pick on regarding Clinton and Obama. The ego of these media types is profound.

    There is also the disconnect between the fact that they mostly love politics but can't really do politics. This makes them upset with people who can do politics like Clinton and Obama. It is like the love/hate relationship that sportswriters have with certain athletes that they cover.

  • Rich2506 on February 29, 2012 11:17 AM:

    There were two events, that for me, tell us a great deal about how connected or disconnected each candidate was from us reg'lar folks. The first was Mitt Romney and his wife doing their laundry. As Jon Stewart pointed out, the clothes they did laundry in were obviously freshly cleaned and pressed. They clearly did their laundry well before they ran out of outfits. My own reaction was "What? They don't just hand off a bag of dirty laundry to their butler, who uses a GPS to find the nearest Romney residence, who then cleans it, folds it and returns the bag before nightfall?"
    With Obama, I was quite impressed with his quieting the crying baby a little while ago. The baby was crying loudly and quite miserable. Barack took the baby and within a few seconds, the baby was quiet. I saw a report saying he had done some up-and-down jerking motion, something that sounds to me like he learned to do as a father. I was especially favorably impressed by Barack's facing his wife right after that and appearing to swagger a bit. It was like "Yeah, see? I'm a man and I can do this woman-type stuff! Boo-yah! Am I a mensch or whut?" I define a mensch btw, as a real man, a family man, a serious grown-up (And no, G.W. Bush was NOT a mensch).
    One candidate struck me as doing something he normally leaves to the servants as trying to appear as though he were "roughing it," the other struck me as very human, someone who was very skilled and who bragged about it, quietly and mostly with gestures and expressions, but was clearly proud of himself.

  • Mary on February 29, 2012 3:32 PM:

    I count the number of hugs the First Family gives to everyone! Pres. Bush wipes his hands on Pres. Clinton's shirt in Haiti after just a hand shake. President Obama practically hugs everyone in sight. And they certainly hug him back. FLOTUS is even more huggy which I am sure plays into why so many people love her. She listens to what people have to say and then gives big hugs! (She is already the hardest working FLOTUS in history, even harder working than Hillay as FLOTUS.)

    I am sure that the Secret Service moan every time he goes out to meet the public. The Secret Service is really getting a workout. This last State of the Union speech seemed to have lots more Secret Service around the President than I have ever noticed before. Have there been threats even from some members of Congress? They were certainly up close and personal with POTUS before and especially after the speech!