Friday, September 22, 2006

Obamamania and my theory of relativity

How best to assess, with a clear head and cold eye, the latest outbreak of Obamamania?

I am referring, of course, to the burgeoning desire among many Democrats for an ’08 presidential primary season that would conclude with the convention coronation of Senator Barack Obama – the silver-tongued African-American from Illinois who gets 300 speaking requests a week (according to his office), and whose reputed ability to wow a crowd ranks second only to Bill Clinton’s. Which is quite a compliment, since it has often been said that Clinton could talk a dog off a meat truck.

I was told several times this week that if I didn’t find a way to watch Obama’s recent speech in Iowa – last Sunday, he keynoted the annual steak fry hosted by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin – then I was missing something special. So, through the combined forces of C-Span and TiVo, I checked it out.

Well, it was good, but not great. Much of it was the expected Democratic boilerplate. Some of it was wry and forceful (on Bush and the politics of 9/11: “I’ve had enough of using terrorism as a wedge issue. I don’t know about you, but the war against terrorism isn’t supposed to crop up just between September and November in even-numbered years”). But he also had the usual lines you hear in almost every speech from every politician in both parties (“Our parents and our grandparents faced greater challenges than we face, and yet somehow they were able to overcome it, that’s the essence of America”).

On the issue of Iraq, he didn’t bob and weave; even though he wasn’t in the Senate when it voted to authorize war back in 2002, he took pains to say that he had opposed an Iraq invasion while he was still a state senator in Illinois; on the other hand, that’s exactly what Harkin’s liberal audience would have wanted to hear. Yet when the moment arrived for him to propose what America should do next in Iraq, he deftly abandoned the topic, segueing seamlessly into a new anecdote about a 105-year-old woman of whom he had spoken earlier.

But he said it all very well, and most striking were the faces in the audience – rapt, mesmerized, eyes ablaze with hope. That’s probably what matters most. Charisma is a rare commodity; it can’t be bottled for general candidate consumption. They either have it or they don’t, and most don’t. Obama also has the gift of weaving the details of his own personal story (community organizer, law professor, “church-going man,” son of a Kenyan and a white Kansas mom) into a larger narrative about the hope and promise and “idea of America.”

The question is, does this mean he’s an historic figure in the wings, the miracle worker who can finally lead thirsty Democrats out of the desert?

Upside: He’s a fresh face, less than two years in the Senate at this point, and therefore unencumbered by the usual Washington baggage; his base is Chicago, a major Democratic fundraising hub; Illinois abuts Iowa, which means that, during the Iowa caucuses, he can flood the zone with volunteers; he can potentially galvanize the party’s African-American voters, while potentially drawing some white “values voters,” with his frank talk about the importance of religion in politics (last June, he rebuked “liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical”). He can do the red-meat rhetoric, but he doesn’t get personal (on Sunday: “I don’t think that George Bush is a bad man”), which means that he’s not likely to polarize our politics any further. And did I mention his charisma?

Downside: Two years ago at this moment, the guy was a state senator in Springfield, Illinois. He has run only once in a statewide race, winning his ’04 Senate seat in a landslide only because his first GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, had to quit the race after seamy details surfaced about his divorce; and because the replacement opponent, right-wing radio host Alan Keyes, has long been a national joke. It’s also tough to think of a single time when he has taken a risky public stand against the Republicans on Capitol Hill; there was a brief tiff with John McCain over an ethics issue that nobody outside of Washington remembers. Indeed, he is so new to the national scene that some Democrats have no idea how he’d react if or when the Republicans feel compelled to try to dent his halo (either by cherry-picking his Senate votes, highlighting some inevitable Senate compromises, or simply Swift Boating him).

In other words, we don’t know at this point whether he’s hero or hype. But it’s fair to say that the current fervor is less about Obama than about the lack of fervor for the rest of the prospective ’08 field. On paper, his assets seem to stand out because of the others’ perceived deficits. Call it my theory of relativity. This is what I hear most often:

Hillary Clinton? A polarizer, and a didactic speaker.
Al Gore? Old news, and ripe again for GOP caricature.
Mark Warner? Too technocratic, not inspiring.
Evan Bayh? No passion, too long in the Senate, too centrist for the liberals.
John Edwards? GOP will zap him with “rich trial lawyer” image.
Bill Richardson? Reputedly lackluster on the stump, and bad on TV.
Joe Biden? Too long in the Senate, too verbose.
Russ Feingold? Too liberal to get elected.
Chris Dodd? Northeastern liberal, and too long in the Senate.
Tom Vilsack: Solid Iowan, but charisma-challenged.
John Kerry? Oh, please.
Wes Clark? Oh, please II.

Conclusion: Obamamania is not just about Obama. It’s also about grading on a curve.