As president, Obama lost his voice – but Al Green helped him get it back

Beneath his cool veneer the US President is at last perceived as being sympathetic.

US President Barack Obama
Obama sweetly singing a snatch of Al Green instantly went viral. Photograph: Getty Images.

Until recently, even the most ardent Democrats have found it hard to offer their wholehearted support to Barack Obama. They may be grateful for the achievements of his first three years – the rescue of the financial system and the Keynesian stimulus, ending the war in Iraq, passing universal health care – but they found him chilly, out of reach, oblivious to their everyday concerns. This remoteness sat oddly with the US’s first African-American president, a self-evidently “cool” rock star of a character who had taken his party by storm in his long campaign for the nomination against Hillary Clinton.

Even Obama recognised this shortcoming. “I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are,” he confessed, acknowledging that he left voters with a “feeling of remoteness and detachment”. Like so many politicians with an image problem, he blamed the press.

“I don’t go to a lot of Washington parties and, as a consequence, the Washington press corps maybe just doesn’t feel like I’m in the mix enough with them, and they figure, well, if I’m not spending time with them, I must be cold and aloof,” he said.

It was not just those who voted for him who expressed their sense of isolation. His Republican opponents were quick to paint him as an elitist, a Harvard law professor who had little understanding of ordinary folk. They cited his private remarks to an ultra-liberal San Francisco audience in 2008, recorded on a mobile phone and instantly broadcast, that many Midwesterners in the American heartland “cling to guns or religion . . . as a way to explain their frustrations”.

Finding his voice

A critical difference between Obama the candidate and Obama the president has been his strange inability to communicate. He is an orator not a confider. He can preach to a vast sports stadium, as he did on his way to the White House but, unlike master communicators such as Franklin Roosevelt with his fireside chats, or Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who appeared to appeal one-on-one in their brilliant television addresses, Obama was not able to resize his big battalion speeches for the small screen.

Yet suddenly Obama has found his voice. Arriving late at a fundraiser at the Apollo, Harlem, in January, he discovered he had missed a set played by the soul legend Al Green. Expressing his regret, he paused, gave a broad smile and, without warning, sang, “Ah-h-h-hm . . . so in love with you,” the lilting opening phrase of the Green love song “Let’s Stay Together”. It was a revelation and an epiphany. He could not only sing, he showed he could be warm and soulful, too.

Obama sweetly singing a snatch of Al Green instantly went viral. Dozens of iterations of his impromptu a cappella riff logged millions of hits on YouTube. His “Ah-h-h-hm . . . so in love with you” became a popular mobile ringtone. The president gained even more credit when he revealed in Rolling Stone that, by singing, he had defied his closest political adviser, the steely Valerie Jarrett, who expressly forbade him to sully the dignity of his office by crooning in public.

Now, without exploiting the incident too obviously, the White House has been letting slip other musical titbits about Obama that confirms that he is, indeed, the coolest president ever to inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When Mick Jagger rehearsed before a performance in the White House ballroom in February, Obama chilled with him for 45 minutes. When Paul McCartney sang “Michelle” to Michelle, Obama was so moved he teared up. Other musical legends he has had perform for him are Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.

When Bob Dylan refused to rehearse at the White House two years ago, merely shook Obama by the hand, declined to have his picture taken with the president, and then left abruptly after singing, according to Obama, “a beautiful rendition” of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’”, the president was delighted. “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right?” he said. “You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little sceptical about the whole enterprise,” Obama told Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone proprietor, in April.

The 2,000 songs on Obama’s iPod include Stevie Wonder, Dylan, the Stones, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jay-Z, Nas, Lil Wayne, “a lot of R’n’B” and “a lot of classical music”. “I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to the opera,” Obama told Wenner, “but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.” From Coltrane to Callas. Chilling with Mick. Dissed by Dylan. How cool is that?

Man eat dog

Then this month, when Obama did stand-up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he showed himself not only to be a master of comic timing, but engagingly self-deprecating and self-knowing. Referring to the revelation in his memoir that, as a child in Indonesia, he had once eaten dog flesh, he tilted at Sarah Palin: “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” he quipped. “A pit bull is delicious!” Then he continued, with a broad smile, “My stepfather always told me, it’s a boy-eat-dog world out there.”

He didn’t back off being political but was funny about it. “Some have said I blame too many problems on my predecessor,” he said. “But let’s not forget that’s a practice that was initiated by George W Bush.” He even acknowledged that his universal health-care plans could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. “In my first term we passed health-care reform. In my second term I guess I’ll pass it again,” he joked.

Since his Al Green moment, Democrats are coming back to Obama, not only because – to paraphrase R A Butler on Anthony Eden – he is the best president they have got, but because they now feel comfortable with him. Beneath his cool veneer he is at last perceived as being sympathetic, a person of substance with warm blood coursing through his veins. And that is something it’s hard to say about his opponent, the robotic Mitt Romney.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£18.99)