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Mr. Hope and Change Can Feel No One’s Pain: Margaret Carlson

We don’t get many do-overs in life. President Barack Obama got one on Monday, a chance to correct the impression that he can’t identify with Joe and Josephine Six Pack except when telling them to eat their spinach and not be upset that the bankers who got us into this mess are dining on caviar.

His opening came in the form of a long, compelling question from Velma Hart at a town hall meeting at the Newseum in Washington. As an exemplar of the middle class, sitting at the kitchen table at the end of the month asking why it’s going so wrong, you couldn’t do better than Hart.

You just know she plays by the rules, wakes early to get to her job as chief financial officer of the veterans’ group Amvets, and raced to the polls in November 2008 to vote for Obama.

Velma told the president that she’s “exhausted of defending you,” “deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” and waiting for him finally “to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class.”

A veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, Hart is married to a facilities manager and lives in suburban Maryland. With two daughters in private school, one about to go to college, she told the president she’s afraid of having to revert to serving hot dogs and beans, the universal symbol of scrimping. The room was with her.

Bill Clinton would have been feeling Velma’s pain at “Hello.” He would undoubtedly have gone overboard, biting too hard on his lower lip. But too much empathy is better than treating a plea from the heart as a request to the professor for a make-up exam.

Clinton’s Embrace

Empathy helped Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992. At a presidential debate in Richmond, Bush fumbled when asked by a woman in the audience how the federal debt affected him personally. “I’m not sure I get it,” Bush said. “Help me with the question, and I’ll try to answer it.”

Clinton, naturally, embraced the question, the questioner, the room and the country. He’d met people like her “all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.” He may have clinched the election that night.

Obama is less Clinton and more Bush, itching to check the time or, in Obama’s case, his BlackBerry. But even by the standards of, say, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose party believes extending unemployment benefits encourages sloth, Obama’s response was removed and cold.

‘Times Are Tough’

“Now, as I said before, times are tough for everybody right now, so I understand your frustration,” he told Hart, after rather clumsily praising her as part of “the bedrock of America” and before citing new credit-card rules and student-loan procedures as evidence of progress.

“As I said” always carries with it the implied question, Weren’t you paying attention? “For everybody” telegraphs you’re one out of millions, nothing special.

And “everybody” isn’t suffering, which is the truth that gets to the heart of Obama’s problem and makes his brushing off Hart as much substance as theater.

Ticking off government initiatives isn’t recognizing how unfair life feels when the rich are getting richer, thanks to government support, and you aren’t. Obama’s one moment of connection came when he joked to Hart that even the most responsible person might want to go buy a new pair of shoes.

Hart said of the man who was going to change things, “I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet.”

Slick Willie

I’m not one of these people who think Obama should be getting down with the people, or getting emotional. A Slick Willie he isn’t, nor should he try to be.

But he’s being hammered in polls that ask Americans whether he cares about people like them. Where did Mr. Hope and Change go? Even if that was inauthentic, he should bring it back.

It’s a long time now since Obama was a community organizer. Even then, he might have been more comfortable dealing with communities than with individuals. Democrats are best with groups. If I break down on the side of the road, I hope a Republican stops -- he’ll fix my flat and offer me a drink. A Democrat will get busy forming a Committee to Protect Women Who Own Vulnerable Cars.

Obama showed more concern toward business, perhaps out of deference to the town-hall host, CNBC, which airs shows morning to night on making the financially secure more so.

“My entire focus right now is to make sure that the private sector is thriving, is growing, is investing,” Obama said.

Caught in Middle

Obama voiced his own frustration at being caught in the middle: Business feels vilified by him, while workers think he favors business over them.

The problem is that Obama, temperamentally, tilts, as most of us do, toward the people he hangs out with and sees every day. And White House work pays well above the minimum wage.

In the toniest neighborhoods of Washington, there’s no housing slump. It’s hard to get a table at many restaurants. Power breakfast at the Hay-Adams hotel across from the White House, where the first family holed up during the transition, is brisk business. A bowl of cereal with bananas is $10.50. Coffee is extra.

Obama is no miracle worker. In fairness, he probably couldn’t do much more than tell Hart, “I understand your frustration.” Next time, though, he should try saying it with feeling.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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