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Paul Ryan and Obama’s Identity Crisis

Many Democrats are outwardly cheering Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan. But I wonder what’s actually going through the minds of Obama’s inner circle. David Axelrod has probably run enough campaigns to realize that Paul Ryan is an exceptional political talent whose star is rising just as Obama’s is fading. And what’s the president thinking? Back in 2007, this was how Obama’s personal frustrations with his self-identity were described to the authors of the book Game Change:

“[Obama] wanted to be seen as substantive. He was substantive. And not being viewed that way was hurting his chances, he thought. I’ve spent my whole life caring about policy, he told his staff. I want to have new ideas. I want them to be specific. I want to make sure that no one can say they’re not specific enough. Obama had imagined at the outset of the campaign that he would set aside hours to consult with world-class experts, delving into the issues, devising innovative solutions. He kept asking for more time to do that, but his schedule was too jam-packed with fund-raisers and campaign events.”

Even back then, Obama was attached to the image of himself as a Serious Person. At the time, he didn’t have a history as someone who devised “innovative solutions” — in the Senate he had mainly voted along party lines, shying away from controversial issues. Since taking presidential office, Obama hasn’t fared much better when it comes to substance. He’s hopped from issues to issue — energy, jobs, the deficit, immigration — giving speeches, signing symbolic orders, proposing vague plans that don’t tend to get implemented. Even Obama’s signature achievement, health care reform, was crafted primarily by Congress.

Yet he continues to latch onto an image of himself as a policy wonk. During a recent interview with CBS, he said his biggest mistake as president was focusing too much on the “policies” and not enough on “tell[ing] a story to the American people.”

This seems to be a major element of Obama’s own self-identity. So it will be interesting to see how he handles a challenge like Paul Ryan — someone who is actually viewed in Washington as both a political superstar and a substantive man of ideas. Obama seems to be fairly thin-skinned for a politician, and he has a difficult time hiding it when he resents someone (see: Benjamin Netanyahu). He never appeared to hold strong feelings about Mitt Romney, but could that change now that Ryan’s entered the race?