Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Great Black Hope

I love the way the media works. Every now, some issue or some personality catches its collective attention, and we are subjecting to a maelstrom of coverage on it. This phenomenon is not endemic to any particular region (it happens all over the world), any particular area of interest (it happens equally in music/sports/politics) or any particular level of gravitas (it happens as much about wars as it does about cats wearing clothes). For instance, a few months ago, around the time "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, Al Gore suddenly launched himself from relative obscurity to right in the middle of the "who's-going-to-stop-Hillary-from-the-Democratic-nomination-in-08" debate. And while he was coy and didn't say he was planning on running, he didn't rule it out either. I still remember being bombarded with movie reviews, New York Times Magazine features, appearances on Jon Stewart, Newsweek stories, New York Magazine covers, blogs going crazy and God-knows-what-else. For something like 3 weeks, Al Gore was everywhere. And just like that, before you knew it, he disappeared. And while he still occupies a place in the American consciousness, it's more latent than it was.

So who's the new fad? That would be Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois. Young (he's 45), fresh (he's a first term senator) and smart (went to Columbia College and Harvard Law School), people are wondering if he's going to go for it in 08. In the space of three days, two of the most influential columnists on Washington politics - David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, one conservative, one liberal, both of the New York Times - have devoted their columns to him. Brooks was literally egging him on to run in an uncharacteristically fawning column titled "Run, Barack, Run" (don't bother clicking if you don't have NYTimes Select) saying

Coming from my own perspective, I should note that I disagree with many of Obama’s notions and could well end up agreeing more with one of his opponents. But anyone who’s observed him closely can see that Obama is a new kind of politician. As Klein once observed, he’s that rarest of creatures: a megahyped phenomenon that lives up to the hype.

It may not be personally convenient for him, but the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you should hope Barack Obama runs for president.

Meanwhile Dowd, while poking fun at his fledgling modelling career (he's been in Men's Vogue and Vanity Fair, among others), says (again, don't bother clicking if you don't have NYTimes Select)

After 16 years of polarizing presidents driving them crazy, Americans will be yearning for someone as soothing as Obama. (“No one is exempt,” he writes in one of many platitudes in his new book, “from the call to find common ground.”) He is so hot now that tickets to his political events are being sought, at scalpers’ prices, on Craig’s List.

His appeal combines the political ability — alien to the Bush administration — to see something from your opponent’s point of view with the cool detachment of a J.F.K. He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and “maybe a little blow” as a young man.

He has been told by Democratic leaders to think about whether he really wants to be president, or whether he’s just getting swept away by people who want him to do it. (That’s a distinction that entitled and unqualified Republican WASPs like W. and Dan Quayle never bother to make, simply learning — or not learning — on the job.)

Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history — or is there no longer any difference?

One thing is clear to me and that is that this guy is for real. He's got a lot of Democrats genuinely excited about their prospects in 08. Many people fear that Hillary is too polarizing, reminds too many people of her husband, connotes to too divisive a time in American politics and is generally the worst possible combination of the left loving her too much (which they fear will guarantee her winning the Democratic nomination) and the right hating her too much (which they fear will guarantee that after winning said nomination, she will lose a national election to whoever the GOP puts up). For the record, I don't agree with that assessment. I think Hillary is an eminently winnable candidate, or can be in 08. Two years is an awful long time, especially in politics. But that's just me; the vast majority of people think she'll have no shot for President, especially if she runs against John McCain. Ergo, they want someone who stands at the center, who appeals to Ivy League intellectuals as much as inner-city blacks in New York, Chicago and LA, who can speak about globalization in non-populist terms, who can energize both young and old. Obama's that guy. I had no idea how popular he was until I got to Chicago. He's got nigh-on rock star status here. He's huge.

All that said, there is one thing everyone's forgetting about him. This came up last weekend, when I was sitting around with some friends and talking about the election that's two years away (and one Obama hasn't even signalled he wants to be a part of). Everyone was singing his praises - how charismatic he is, how intelligent he is, this that and the other - when I brought up what I thought was a very obvious point. "Yeah, but...but he's black". How can people ignore this? The counter to my argument was "Well, Hillary's a woman." My counter to that was "Well, Hillary's a white woman." There are a lot more women in the US than there are black people (and this is not to say all women will vote for Hillary or even that all blacks will vote for Obama). I'm no expert on American politics, but it seems to me that being a black man is a much bigger liability than being a white woman. That's just the way I see it.

Anyways, all this is to say I'm fascinated with the way Obama's suddenly in the public eye, now that his book is out. He's definitely part of the conversation (not that he wasn't before) and people are going to want answers from him. Specifically: hey, bro, you running or not? For the record, I think he should. I'm very impressed by him, his ideas and his style. I think he's a fantastic politician, and if I was American, I'd vote for him over anybody else out there. It's just that I don't think enough people would agree with me for it to matter.


Alien Panda said...

Obama is the one politician who comes close to the fictional Jed Bartlett (of the West Wing): an intelligent liberal who happens to be religious and not being a career politician is not bound by the ethos of DC's political culture.

(check this out: )

Bartlett the Democrat, or Vinick the Republican, were brilliant representations of a smart man's politican. But these people just don't get elected, or do they?
Obama might prove to be the answer to that, but I think that will all depend on the Democratic Party. Will Obama be able to get any support from any 'party-elders'? Its hard to say. Alliances in washington take a long time to form and there will be many who will feel that he's not done enough for the party or that they don't owe him anything. These are the people who control the big-money, they are in charge of milking the 'old-boys' network and have all the right connections; small donations recieved through the internet don't go far enough (just ask Howard Dean). Its the reason why Cheney, a relative unknown to the public), became Vice-President (he might have been in the cabinet before, but that's not what got him into the VP chair).

So for all the support that Obama might have, not sure if there's enough momentum within the party that can carry Obama.

saad said...

Obama may be a fantastic politician, but he's entirely devoid of ideas. Check out any speech of his (the one at the Democratic Convention in 2004 is the best example) and see if you can distinguish it from a typical Reagan speech.
I can see an Obama presidency being remarkably similar to the Clinton administration. Stirring speeches, a few politically expedient tears, mass popularity and no coherent policy.
And the fact that he's black will help him become president. Face it, no one would create a fuss over his educational qualifications and intelligence if he was white.

Ahsan said...

i dont agree with either of you. alien panda, you are over estimating the importance of "party elders". this is not china, or even france, we're talking about. at the end of the day, success in primaries (especially the primaries of 08) will not depend on washington alliances as you say, but on votes. simple votes. hillary has the money, gore the experience and obama the charisma (this is a gross simplification but bear with me). i cant see anyone other than these 3 getting the democratic nomination, and success in the primaries will depend on what carries more weight for the democratic base.

i dont think obama's "devoid" of ideas. he has a lot of ideas actually. but theres a difference between ideas and policies. with regards to the latter, (as brooks said), he can definitely improve. but thats what advisors are for. the comparison with clinton is a good one, though i think itll be impossible for conservatives to hate obama the way they hated (hate) clinton. other than that, its a fair comparison.