Sunday, January 6, 2008
The Audacity Of Skepticism
A friend took me to task yesterday for being, and I quote, "...the only one this side of the milky way who didn't like Obama's speech," referring to my reaction to his Iowa victory oration. To clarify, I thought it was a great speech, and what's more, there's no doubt that Obama is an uncommonly skilled orator. I just found its triumphant tone out of proportion, almost comically so given the context. And while I think that dispassionate analysis bears out my reservations about his historic references, I grant that the more accurate comparison (ie. a situation resembling 1976-80 that demands patient resolve and strategic pragmatism to restore our faith in the executive and our standing in the world) makes for far less inspiring rhetoric. So much for the speech.
My reaction to the speech, though, is based on a broader resistance to the euphoria surrounding his caucus victory and the quasi-religious appeal of his campaign in general, which perhaps demands more of an explanation. It's based simply on an instinctive distrust of charismatic leaders who base their appeal on emotional manipulation of the masses. That Obama's message is based on hope rather than fear distinguishes him from the demagogues and despots, the Rudy Giuliani's and Hugo Chavez's of the world, or what Andrew Sullivan calls "the man on the balcony". But the mechanism is the same, and it makes me nervous. Anytime I see a massive assembly of human beings pumped up on emotion, my first reflex is to make a mental note of the quickest path to the exit. My second reflex is to see how the arguments that got everyone worked up stand up to the cold hard light of reason.
Which is what makes Obama such a complex candidate for me. Because while his oratory is emotionally convincing but historically inaccurate, his talent for parsing the issues and his broader judgment do stand up to a more dispassionate analysis. What's more, by temperament he appeals to both my liberal hopes for a more just society as well as my more moderate expectations of what government can and should accomplish. But I'm vacillating between voting for him or Hillary Clinton, and Matthew Yglesias, discussing last night's debate, best distills the essence of my dilemma:
Clinton doesn't wow you, but she takes care of business. Barack Obama is clearly not at his best in this format -- he delivers great setpiece speeches and is very appealing in a small group, but doesn't quite seem sure of his tone when seated around the table.
Of course, "around the table" is where most of the day to day, nuts and bolts of governing takes place. Now Yglesias was referring to the debate format, not the act of governing, and in any event, Obama is by all accounts skilled at getting legislation, even potentially unpopular legislation, passed. But if I end up voting for him, it will be because of his insight and his effectiveness, not his oratory skills, even if I do admire them as a performance art.