Sunday, February 11, 2007

Obama Everywhere

Well, one thing's for sure. If media coverage were votes, Barack Obama would be President already. Of course, part of it has to do with the fact that he's such an unknown quantity. Yes, there was the high-profile convention moment in 2004, and people who follow politics have had their eye on him for a while. But to the general public he's a newbie, which means hot ink.

So far the coverage has been focusing around:

  • His insistance on vague and inspirational rhetoric, at the expense of policy proposals.
  • His talent, charisma, and authenticity.
  • His relatively short political career.
  • His blackness.

I think there are as many political strengths as weaknesses to be found in all four. I've argued the merits of detailed policy proposals before, and it's something I'd like to develop further. But the short version is that telephone book-sized legislation is a big cause of the disconnect that exists between voters and government today. (Corruption being the other.) The politician who finds a way to re-invent not just politics, but government itself, as a goal-oriented, policy-adaptive institution stands to bring a lot of people into the process who would otherwise stand on the sidelines.

It might seem difficult to argue that talent, charisma and authenticity might have downsides, but mark my words: There's going to be a backlash, and when it comes, it will try to make talent look like ambition and charisma like self-importance. As for authenticity, it's a difficult quality to maintain on the campaign trail, especially with more than a year to go before the first primary votes are cast. It looks like Obama's wisely decided to play down people's fascination with his personal excellence and steer press coverage back from "me" to "us".

Short political careers set up the classic pro/con debate of inexperience vs. fresh ideas. With his emphasis on audacity and hope, or in other words bold action and results, Obama's already playing this one up as the latter. But he's got very little room for error. Any major gaffes or slips, while unlikely given his academic brilliance, will immediately put his credibility in doubt.

That leaves Obama's blackness, which is already playing out in some very counterintuitive ways. Consider that in the same week that Joe Biden's clumsy -- and mis-transcribed -- remarks set off a firestorm of controversy about language and race, some black leaders were grumbling that Obama, to put it bluntly, isn't "one of us". (The reasoning being that Obama's father is African, his mother is white, and he grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii.) Consider also that Hillary Clinton is outpolling him among black Democrats. The danger, of course, of not being embraced by what the rest of America will always consider "his own" is the impression it leaves of being somehow in-authentic. The opportunity lies in the chance it gives Obama to frame his narrative in the broader American tradition, and to define himself as a candidate for president who's black, instead of as a black candidate for president.

There's still a long way to go before the primaries, to say nothing of the general election. Plenty of time to fill in the outlines with substance, or let loose with a Dean Scream. So far, though, I'd say Obama's making all the right moves.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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