We are getting very excited. Barack Obama is brilliant, eloquent and fresh. He is “exciting” (David Brooks), “charming” (Bob Schieffer), “my favorite guy” (Oprah Winfrey), has “charisma” (Donna Brazile), and should run now for president (George Will). Our political and media establishments, on the rebound from bad history, are sounding like Marlene Dietrich in her little top hat. Falling in luff again, vot am I to do, vot am I to do, kont hellllllp eet.
Well, down from your tippy toes, establishment.
He is obviously planning to run. This week he was in New Hampshire—rapturous reviews, sold-out fund-raisers—and before that, Iowa. His second book is his second best seller and the biggest-selling nonfiction title in the nation. The intro he taped for “Monday Night Football”—in an Aaron Sorkin-like setting of gleaming desk and important lighting—showed he is an actor who can absorb the script and knows by nature what a camera is. This is a compliment. All the great presidents of the media age, FDR, JFK and Reagan, were great actors of the presidency. (The one non-great president who was their equal in this, Bill Clinton, proved that acting is not enough.)
He has obvious appeal. I asked a Young Democrat college student why he liked him. After all, I said, he has little experience. That’s part of what I like, he said. “He’s not an insider, he’s not just a D.C. politician.”
He is uncompromised by a past, it is true. He is also unburdened by a record, unworn by achievement, unwearied by long labors.
What does he believe? What does he stand for? This is, after all, the central question. When it is pointed out that he has had almost—almost—two years in the U.S. Senate, and before that was an obscure state legislator in Illinois, his supporters compare him to Lincoln. But Lincoln had become a national voice on the great issue of the day, slavery. He rose with a reason. Sen. Obama’s rise is not about a stand or an issue or a question; it is about Sen. Obama. People project their hopes on him, he says.
He’s exactly right. Just so we all know it’s projection.
He doesn’t have an issue, he has a thousand issues, which is the same as having none, in the sense that a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. And on those issues he seems not so much to be guided by philosophy as by impulses, sentiments. From “The Audacity of Hope,” his latest book: “[O]ur democracy might work a bit better if we recognized that all of us possess values that are worthy of respect.” “I value good manners.” When not attempting to elevate the bromidic to the profound, he lapses into the language of political consultants—”our message,” “wedge issues,” “moral language.” Ronald Reagan had “a durable narrative.” Parts of the book, the best parts, are warm, anecdotal, human. But much of it pretends to a seriousness that is not borne out. When speaking of the political past he presents false balance and faux fairness. (Reagan, again, despite his “John Wayne, Father Knows Best pose, his policy by anecdote and his gratuitous assaults on the poor” had an “appeal” Sen. Obama “understood.” Ronnie would be so pleased.)
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The world is difficult now, unlike those days when America enjoyed “the near unanimity forged by the Cold War, and the Soviet threat.” Near unanimity? This is rewriting the past in a way that suggests a deep innocence of history, or a slippery approach to the facts.
Sen. Obama spent his short lifetime breathing in the common liberal/leftist wisdom, which he exhales at length. This is not something new—it’s something old in a new package. And it is something that wins you what he has, a series of 100% ratings from left-liberal interest groups.
He is, clearly, a warm-blooded political animal, an eager connector, a man of intelligence and a writer whose observations suggest the possibility of an independence of spirit. Also a certain unknowability. Which may account for some of his popularity.
But again, what does he believe? From reading his book, I would say he believes in his destiny. He believes in his charisma. He has the confidence of the anointed. He has faith in the magic of the man who meets his moment.
He also believes in the power of good nature, the need for compromise, and the possibility of comprehensive, multitiered, sensible solutions achieved through good-faith negotiations.
But mostly it seems to be about him, his sense of destiny, and his appreciation of his own particular gifts. Which leaves me thinking Oh dear, we have been here before. It’s not as if we haven’t already had a few of the destiny boys. It’s not as if we don’t have a few more in the wings.
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It seems to me that our political history has been marked the past 10 years by lurches, reactions and swerves, and I wonder if historians will see the era that started in the mid-’90s as The Long Freakout. First the Clinton era left more than half the country appalled—deeply appalled, and ashamed—by its series of political, financial and personal scandals. I doubt the Democratic Party will ever fully understand the damage done in those days. In reaction the Republican Party lurched in its presidential decision toward a relatively untested (five years in the governor’s office, before that very little) man whom party professionals chose, essentially, because “He can win” and the base endorsed because he seemed the opposite of Bill Clinton. The 2000 election was a national trauma, and I’m not sure Republicans fully understand what it did to half the Democrats in the country to think the election was stolen, or finagled, or arranged by unseen powers. Then 9/11. Now we have had six years of high drama and deep division, and again a new savior seems to beckon, one who is so clearly Not Bush.
We’ll see what Sen. Obama has, what he is, what he becomes. But right now he seems part of a pattern of lurches and swerves—the man from nowhere, of whom little is known, who will bring us out of the mess. His sudden rise and wild popularity seem more symptom than solution. And I wonder if historians will call this chapter in their future histories of the modern era not “A Decision Is Made” but “The Freakout Continues.”