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By Jay Cost

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Obama's Vanity is a Liability for Democrats

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in early 2007, I was fascinated by his public relations strategy. As a candidate, his facility with the arts of public communication vastly outstripped John McCain's (and Hillary Clinton's, for that matter), and frankly has few rivals in the history of electioneering.

Yet my fascination turned to consternation some time after Mr. Obama's inauguration. I had expected him to modify substantially his strategy in light of the august office he now inhabits. As early as February, 2009 - I fretted about the President's continued courting of celebrity. Since those early days, it has become frustratingly apparent that his Administration's way of dealing with the public is largely an extension of his campaign's.

Neither of them is wholly "rational." You cannot explain how Obama the candidate or Obama the President communicates with the public by assuming that it is all a product of strategic thinking. A strategy implies a goal and a credible explanation as to why a particular action will help accomplish that goal. Too many of his activities are inexplicable by this language of strategic rationality. Recall the Summer of 2008 when candidate Obama seemed particularly weightless: the "Seal of Obama," his European tour, his grandiose convention stage. There was something more to each of these than the simple determination that they were the best ways to spread his message to the masses.

Ditto his choice to appear on The View. Celebrities go on The View. Movie stars and rock stars. Not sitting Presidents of the United States. You cannot explain his decision to appear there without acknowledging that it was, at least in part, about the thrill he gets from being treated like a movie star. This is not merely about public communication. This is also about vanity.

Presidents occasionally make appearances on airy shows - George W. Bush, for instance, had a brief video spot on Deal or No Deal during which he thanked a contestant for his service as a soldier in Iraq. And of course candidates for the Presidency often make appearances on lighter programs like Oprah or The Tonight Show. Yet there are obviously big differences between President Obama and his predecessors, and it cannot be chalked up entirely to getting the message out.

Excessive vanity is common among Presidents. You must be vain to presume that you, and nobody else, should be the next President of the United States. Some Presidents are able to manage their vanity so that it is an asset. For other Presidents, vanity is a severe political handicap. Obama is falling into the latter category, which is somewhat of a surprise. His vanity surely helped generate the "audacity" he needed to snatch the Democratic party nomination from Hillary Clinton. Yet since he accomplished that amazing feat, his vanity has gone from a plus to a minus, creating two political problems for him that can be seen in the above clip.

First, it induces him to do silly things like appear on The View. Such behavior does not help advance his message at all. The audience for this trite program is far too small to induce opinion changes in the mass public. And more importantly, it diminishes the President's stature. His office is so important that he should not be appearing on programs such as this.

Second, it strips him of a sense of self-awareness. This President, who was recently ranked as the eighth most intelligent President of all time (just behind of John Adams, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and four spots ahead of George Washington, who successfully repelled an invasion by the greatest military power the world had ever seen to that point), seems unaware of the concept of irony. There is no other way to explain why he would say this after having become the first President to engage in a permanent electoral campaign:

We shouldn't be campaigning all the time. There is a time to campaign and there is a time to govern. What we've tried to do over the last 20 months is to govern. On health care or financial reform, right now we have a big debate about how to get small businesses more credit because they generate the jobs. When you feel as if every single initiative that we're doing is subject to Washington politics instead of is this good for the country, that can be frustrating.

The fact that he uttered these words on The View, a show politicians only frequent when they are desperately trolling for votes, makes it all the more remarkable.

President Obama's vanity is fast becoming a problem for the Democratic Party. Messages cannot be delivered without messengers. Ideas require expounders. Even if the former are sound, the latter can make them sound foolish. Obama ran for and won that party's nomination based upon the claim that he could sell the party's ideas to Americans who regularly hesitate to pull the lever for Democrats. He is failing to do that, and his vanity is one reason why.

Democrats have reasons for great anxiety as we approach the 112th Congress and the next presidential campaign. The Republicans, sent packing after the 2006 and 2008 elections, are set to return to the District of Columbia in force next January. On top of that, unemployment is supposed to remain stubborningly high and the deficit will surely remain at unsustainable levels. All of this will make for difficult waters for Democratic party leaders to navigate. The party is going to need crafty, deft leadership if it hopes to avoid ceding further ground to the Republicans. I have my doubts that this President - overcome as he seems to be with self-adoration - can supply it. I'm guessing that many Democrats are starting to have similar worries.