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Commentary: Mr. Obama, re-introduce yourself

On Sunday, The Washington Post and The New York Times assembled more than 20 savants and asked them, as the Times put it, "How Can Obama Rebound?" Good question. Not only do six out of ten voters "lack faith in the president to make the right decisions for the country," according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, but Barack Obama does not even get credit for the right decisions he's already made. The bank bailout averted a financial crackup and the stimulus package pulled the economy back from the abyss. Along with reform of the financial industry and health care, these are considerable achievements. Only the voters disagree.

Why? Some of the answers are apparent. The economy remains sluggish and unemployment remains high. The effects of the health care act have yet to be felt and the ink is hardly dry on financial reform. Until these measures prove popular, they can be mischaracterized by Republicans and other evil-doers. As for the economy, not letting things get worse is not the same as making them better.

So what can be done about all this? The experts in the most mainstream of the mainstream media brim with ideas. "New thinking" could save the day, says David Frum, and a revived war on cancer would work wonders, says Elizabeth Edwards. Democratic strategist Catherine A. "Kiki" McLean says Obama should focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs," while Matthew Dowd, he of ABC News, suggests the president "get off the partisan campaign trail." Donna Brazile urges Obama to step up his rhetoric, Edward Rollins thinks Obama would do better if he stopped blaming his predecessor and Robert Shrum opines that "Obama needs only to be himself." (What's that?)

All these are nifty suggestions and some could make a really exciting panel discussion at Brookings. But the fallacy in all of them is apparent when -- as always happens -- Obama is likened to Ronald Reagan. The similarities are superficial, and foremost among them is the fact that Reagan too had dismal numbers at this state of his presidency -- due to a steep recession. In fact, the Republicans lost House seats in the 1982 midterm elections, just as the Democrats are fated to do, according to every conceivable political seer. Reagan, of course, went on to win re-election by a landslide and has since become a Mount Rushmorian figure.

The comparison to Reagan may give Obama cheer, but it is not really apt. For even in Reagan's darkest days when, according to Gallup, six out of 10 Americans reported that they did not like the job he was doing, an astounding six in 10 nevertheless said they liked the man himself. He was, of course, phenomenally charming, authentic and schooled at countless soundstages in appearing that way. Just as important, the public had faith in the consistency of his principles, agree or not. This was the Reagan Paradox and it helped lift his presidency.

No one is accusing Obama of being likable. He is not unlikable, but he lacks Reagan's (or Bill Clinton's) warmth. What's more, his career has been brief. He seems distant. No Irish jokes from him. For the average voter, he casts no shadow.

Reagan, by contrast, had been around forever. He was not defined solely by gauzy campaign ads but by countless speeches, two contentious and highly controversial terms as California governor and a previous race for the presidency. There was never a question about who Reagan was and what he stood for. Not so Obama. About all he shares with Reagan at this point are low ratings.

What has come to be called the Obama Paradox is not a paradox at all. Voters lack faith in him making the right economic decisions because, as far as they're concerned, he hasn't. He went for health care reform, not jobs. He supported the public option, then he didn't. Americans know Obama's smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done they have to know who he is. We're waiting.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is