The Emotional Tug of Obama

The Emotional Tug of Obama

The New York Times


Frank Bruni

FORGET your political affiliation. Never mind your assessment of his time in office so far. If you have any kind of heart, you’re struck by it: the photograph of Barack Obama bent down so that a young black boy can touch his head and see if the president’s hair is indeed like his own. It moves you. It also speaks to a way in which Obama and Mitt Romney, whose campaigns are picking up the pace just as polls show them neck and neck, are profoundly mismatched.

Pete Sousa/White House

In a story that quickly went viral, The Times’s Jackie Calmes wrote last week about the photograph, which was taken three years ago when the boy, then 5, visited the White House. It has hung there ever since, left on the wall even as other pictures were swapped out, as is the custom, for newer, fresher ones.

David Axelrod, one of the chief architects of Obama’s political career, told Calmes: “It doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’ This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that just remind you that it’s worth it.”

Axelrod’s words, meanwhile, are a reminder that more than three and a half years after Obama made history as the first black man elected to the presidency, he still presents more than a résumé and an agenda. He still personifies the hope, to borrow a noun that he has used, that we really might evolve into the colorblind, fair-minded country that many of us want. His own saga taps into the larger story of this country’s fitful, unfinished progress toward its stated ideal of equal opportunity.

And that gives many voters an emotional connection to him that they simply don’t have to most other politicians, including Romney, a privileged and intensely private man whose strengths don’t include the easy ability to humanize himself. There’s a Mitt-versus-myth element to the 2012 campaign, and it influences the manner in which Romney’s supporters and Romney himself engage the president and make their pitch. They must and do emphasize job-creation numbers over personal narrative, the technocratic over the touchy-feely.

Obama and his advisers don’t exactly tack in the opposite direction. Understandably concerned about longstanding prejudices, they don’t invoke his racial identity all that frequently.

But when they do, it’s powerful. The photograph released last week instantly reminded me of one taken in mid-April, when Obama visited a museum in Dearborn, Mich. It showed him seated in the bus that Rosa Parks made famous. And it, too, pinged fast and far around the Web…

Obama aboard the Rosa Parks bus in Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum, April 18, 2012. (Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Read the entire opinion piece here.

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