Barack Obama is a wonderful salesman of a singular product: himself. His effect and biography make a spectacular package. Slender and graceful, with a remarkable speaking voice, his facsimiles stare at you from fashion spreads everywhere, while his life story -- up from obscure and unlikely beginnings, black and white, Kenya and Kansas, the strange and the all too corny and familiar -- is the story of how life should be.
Obama tells his story through his personal medium really well: writing best-selling biographies before he was 40, making himself a senator on the strength of these stories, and then president on the strength of a speech. The upside of this is that he portrays himself beautifully. The downside is that this seems to be all he can do.
In the Illinois state Senate, he voted "present." In the United States Senate, he sponsored little in the way of real legislation. As president, he has failed so badly to do what he promised that he has been forced to downgrade his slogan from "Yes, We Can!" to "No One Could Have Done It," to "Maybe We Can't Do It Yet."
Also, it became clear in the course of his tenure that he cannot sell much else besides himself. A year or so after his stunning, spectacular victory, he failed to sell Creigh Deeds, who lost badly to Bob McDonnell for governor in Virginia. He failed to sell Jon Corzine, who lost to Chris Christie in New Jersey; and Martha Coakley, who lost to Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In 2010, at the height of the wars over health care, he assured queasy House Democrats who feared a reprise of their catastrophic losses in the 1994 midterms that this couldn't happen, as this time he would be was there to protect them. The wipeout turned out to be even worse.
Obama could not sell his programs either. His stimulus package is widely perceived as a failure, and the more he flogged his health care proposals, the more politically toxic they grew. He failed to change this center-right nation into a center-left, much less a left, one. And in most of the cases where his theories of government ran into the right-wing (or Tea Party) model, the Tea Party cleaned his clock. After his 2010 "shellacking," the Left threw all that it had at Wisconsin's Scott Walker, who not only survived his recall election but improved his 2010 showing. In short, since 2008, Obama has lost every battle, and every election in which he has not personally been on the ballot. The scary thing for Democrats is that this is indisputable. The scary thing for Republicans is that this time, he is on the ballot.
Complicating this is the fact that the man running against him is a turnaround artist with a great business record whose short suit is selling himself. Mitt Romney has a persona, but it doesn't come over in public. He has an inspiring, up-from-rags story, but it is his father's story. He is proof that one can be born at the top of the tree, and still climb higher through relentless hard work. Where Obama is the hip sort of male who began to emerge in the mid-1990s, Romney is Dad in a prior-day sitcom, of the sort created in the mid-'50s before father stopped knowing best.
Mitt seems to know best about tuning the engine, whereas Obama has done little well but market his own presence. Can the man who has failed at all except self-promotion now promote himself one last time?
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."