WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s “no drama” persona will be tested like never before when he faces what is expected to be a humbling verdict on his presidency in next week’s congressional elections.
The key question is whether Obama has the temperament to adapt to a Republican surge that could drastically alter the balance of power in Washington.
“Some politicians are able to transform themselves, and others can‘t,” said Bill Schneider, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia. “Which one of those is Obama? We’re about to find out.”
Most signs suggest it will be a difficult adjustment for Obama as he struggles to turn around his presidency while dealing with a more hostile Congress.
With his cerebral style, Obama was able to inspire voters’ trust on the presidential campaign trail in 2008 amid a once-in-a-generation financial crisis and two foreign wars.
But, in office, his “no-drama Obama” demeanor has sometimes come across as aloof and out of touch with the economic distress of ordinary Americans. That has left many yearning for a dose of former President Bill Clinton’s “feel-your-pain” empathy.
Obama’s famously deliberative nature will be critical to how he handles the new political realities in the second half of his term, with Republicans projected to be in control of the House of Representatives and stronger in the Senate as they try to freeze his agenda.
He is already showing signs of soul-searching about what’s gone wrong and has offered clues to how he might repackage himself -- what some in the media have dubbed “Obama 2.0.”
Obama said in an interview this week that Democrats will need to show an “appropriate sense of humility” in the election aftermath and pledged to work harder at building consensus but signaled he would only bend so much to Republican pressure. He has also admitted he was so busy making policy “we did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly.”
Obama’s first challenge will be coming to grips personally with what is likely to be a stinging rebuke from voters to his leadership and policies like the healthcare overhaul and massive economic stimulus spending.
A Democratic meltdown on his watch would mark a dramatic reversal for a politician who rose swiftly from the Illinois state legislature to the White House on soaring rhetoric of hope and change.
Obama has been accustomed to having things go his way.
Opponents in his last Senate race were felled by scandal. Hillary Clinton’s campaign all but imploded when she ran against him for the Democratic presidential nomination. And economic crisis all but guaranteed voters would not opt for another Republican in the White House after eight years of George W. Bush.
As the first African-American presidential nominee of any major party, Obama always seemed on top of his message of being a transformational figure.
But as president, Obama -- despite being a gifted orator and memoirist -- looks at times to have lost control of the narrative. Republicans have gained traction casting him as a big-government liberal, while right-wing bloggers have helped falsely convince a fifth of Americans he is a secret Muslim.
While still able to captivate large crowds and deliver polished addresses on policy, Obama has often proved an awkward communicator in more informal settings, sometimes reverting to the tone of the law professor he used to be.
Critics accused him of talking down to Americans when he told a Massachusetts audience: “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod recently had to deny the comments showed that his boss -- who was raised mostly by a single mother in modest circumstances but earned a Harvard law degree -- was an intellectual snob.
“The president was stating -- which is obvious -- that this has been a very tough time,” Axelrod said.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale urged Obama to lose the teleprompters -- a regular tool at his appearances -- “to connect with the American people,” if he wants to avoid being a one-term president like Mondale’s old boss, Jimmy Carter.
Some analysts doubt, however, whether Obama will take to heart the lesson that he has to be a better policy salesman -- a part of the job that Obama clearly disdains -- even as he pursues a less ambitious agenda over the next two years.
Also uncertain is whether he has the political dexterity to follow Clinton’s example when, with his popularity ratings similarly down in the mid-40s, his fellow Democrats lost Congress in 1994. Clinton then shifted to the center, used the Republicans’ overreach as a foil and “triangulated” his way to a resounding re-election.
What is clear, however, is that Obama’s political future may rest more on the country’s economic fortunes than anything he does to reshape his image or alter his style of governing.
“If people have jobs again, not many will care if he’s the great communicator,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of political communications at Boston University.
Editing by Vicki Allen