Consuming Obama

Barack Obama is riding a wave of enthusiasm, and though we sense his sincerity, there’s little else we know about him. Considering the man everyone seems to think should be our next president.

Barack Obama, the could-be president, had had his fill of approval and was ready for dessert. He'd just concluded a brief, uplifting speech less than 10 minutes after emerging from the freight elevator doors at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. The deafening applause that welcomed him only grew louder as he wound his way to the podium, and the speech that ensued was punctuated by hoots and thunders of clapping whenever Obama said something particularly revealing and poignant. Now the lunchtime crowd that packed the entire floor was shuffling to get a better camera-phone shot of him sitting at a table to sign copies of his new book, The Audacity of Hope. Throughout the floor the book appeared on dedicated display stands, alongside his previously published autobiography—some of Obama’s admirers were double-fisting both. The cover of Audacity eschews the headshot typical of politicians’ book jackets: Obama appears seated right at your level, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees, looking you eye-to-eye with an understanding grin.

The man onstage seemed just as approachable. Obama had taken off his navy blue jacket and looked relaxed in his impeccably pressed white shirt and light blue tie. Each time someone stepped forward to shake his hand, Obama looked up and flashed a toothy, winsome smile, like he’d been waiting all afternoon for that very person to show up—and then there she came, the requisite lady who brought her baby along, and there he is, the man in business casual with the laptop bag, and on and on.

The line for a chance to experience Obama up close extended all the way to the back of the store. When I asked people in the line, “What do you think of Obama?” the most common response was, “I really like him.” Pressed further, a woman thought of Obama as an honest man, the kind she’d like to see in higher office. Of his presidential worthiness another said, “At least he can speak and read.” “He works by hope rather than fear.” “Refreshing” was frequently invoked. “He’s an outsider.”

At a display rack loaded with copies of Audacity, a man filled both hands with three copies and hurried to find the back of the line. With the hundreds of people already waiting, his chances to come face to face with Obama were slim, but he just had to try. It’s Obama.


* * *

Think of America as a gold-rush town, and one day a stranger appears at high noon, casting a long shadow into the saloon, where the sheriff and his cronies sit, counting their dirty money. The intervening savior is a recurring theme in American politics. The myth goes that there exists a person of such resolute, countervailing character that his or her sudden ascension in the political scene, like the arrival of Capra’s bright-eyed Mr. Smith, promises to cleanse Washington of its slimy scourges. In the presidential race, Mr. Smith has taken many names. In recent years, the voting public has seen the likes of Mr. Perot, the self-made billionaire who promised to quiet “the giant sucking sound” that was NAFTA, and the Friendster-friendly Mr. Dean, the Vermont governor who offered himself as an alternative November flavor for frustrated Democrats. Mr. McCain, though not exactly a newcomer to national office, offered voters a full view of his raging honesty and the implicit suggestion that he wouldn’t take crap from anybody. Most times the candidacy doesn’t outlast the novelty—none of these candidates have yet to claim the Oval Office—but sometimes a candidate can win with an appeal to voters’ desperation. After all, Mr. Bush wasn’t exactly a savior, but to many people he was somebody refreshing, an outsider with a name they knew and the mirror opposite to the capable but animatronic Al Gore. George W. Bush was a bright-eyed, plain-speaking candidate with just enough brevity in political experience to leave everything open to the promise of better, more audacious times ahead.

If Obama is to be defined as a creature of anything, there’s still little clarity what exactly he might be. It may be a stretch to say Barack Obama is the Democratic party’s George W. Bush, but it’s not beyond reason to see Obama’s charisma as an analog to Bush’s cocky frat-boy congeniality. The Obama the public sees is a bright, but humble, regular guy who also happens to be a politician. He’s easygoing and self-effacing, but also thoughtful and often serious. He is one of the most promising personalities in the otherwise charmless and marginally humanized society that is the bane of Washington, and certainly in the eyes of his supporters, Obama has been very good at distancing himself from the cynicism with which many Americans now view the political process. Exit polls conducted during the November midterm elections showed more voters citing corruption as an “extremely important” factor in their decisions than terrorism and the war in Iraq. While Obama has had to contend with some emerging doubts of his white-shoed incorruptibility, including questions of favoritism for the energy industry as outlined in Ken Silverstein’s recent Harper’s article, he often calls attention to the personal hesitation and uneasiness that separate him from other politicians. In the speech he gave at his New York book signing, Obama beamed as he talked about walking around the nation’s capital. The grand architecture of D.C. reminded him he was a part of the democracy it signifies. Yet, he said, he refrained from bringing his family with him to D.C., because he disliked the idea of becoming “a creature of Washington.”

If Obama is to be defined as a creature of anything, there’s still little clarity what exactly he might be. The Obama we’re presented with—in his book, in the news, in his speeches and TV appearances—is as much bipartisan as he is nonpartisan. Obama presents himself as an extra-political creature unfettered by party colors or ideologies. He bridges people—he’s not a divider, for sure. Witness the Obama of elections past, then a state senator, reaching to his most conservative peers to push through bills in the Illinois legislature. Then there’s Obama getting an audience with his Democrat elder, Sen. Robert Byrd, a former Klansman who had disavowed his KKK membership and now represents a throwback to more civil times in Congress. Cut to Obama and McCain teaming up to tackle lobbying reform (they would publicly feud and then later make up). On the show Meet the Press, the names Obama dropped in answers to host Tim Russert’s questions were more Republican than Democrat: former Bush-the-Elder Secretary of State James Baker and his foreign policy wisdom, Sen. Tom Coburn and their collaboration on the federal budget, Ronald Reagan and his political success, and Bush-the-Younger himself, who gave him advice on the difficulties of political life.

The Democrats have seized on the “it” factor of its star headliner, and Obama dutifully complies, making his rounds in battlefield states across the country—and he kills. Obama has cast himself as the reasonable man breaking up two brutal beasts from their rabid fight. He is Starbuck, as opposed to George W. Bush’s Ahab. Obama’s not, as he aptly described Bush, a man of “messianic certainty.” He has positioned himself as a hero to the even-minded, reaching out to the other team and publicly balancing policy positions with slow, deliberate consideration of their opposites. Because of this tendency, his world view seems largely anchored by on-the-other-hands: Science, yes, but what about faith? Yes to tolerance, but is it the right time for full support of gay marriage? One could imagine him at a salad bar, weighing the implications of Caesar or French. (He might just mix them together as a reasonable resolution.)

Fair-mindedness is an admirable quality—after all, America is not entirely shaded in either red or blue—but the reality of politics usually does not mimic the structure of a standardized test essay. At the other end of absolutism is a muddled, shapeless place, and this is where Obama, the fresh-out-of-the-box junior senator, has been able to thrive. Obama goes both ways. He takes a jump to the left and then a step to the right. One day Obama is hanging out at Google’s posh headquarters, and then another day he’s inside a machinists’ union hall having a heart-to-heart with union leaders. He’s new school, he’s old school. He’s folksy, he’s Brahman. Obama is in the eye of the beholder.

And everybody’s looking his way. Which is why the past few months have been so busy for Obama. His face was on the cover of Time magazine, above a headline that read, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” He appeared on the Today show, Oprah, and Larry King, among others, for maximum face time with America, who apparently could not get enough of him. Along with the release of his new book, Obama also had to attend to the business of his party’s midterm elections. The Democrats have seized on the “it” factor of its star headliner, and Obama dutifully complies, making his rounds in battlefield states across the country—and he kills. The 2,500 tickets to his rally in Seattle with Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Darcy Burner were gone within a few hours. In Detroit, he appeared alongside Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who played ringmaster to a crowd that could hardly wait for Obama to step up to the microphone and make his White Sox/Tigers joke. In the Market Square of Alexandria, Va., Obama was called on to energize the campaign of James Webb, a former Republican and the eventual usurper of incumbent George Allen. “I’ve had enough” was the theme of his stump speech, an echo of a September rally in Louisville where he came to embody the discontent and rage his audience felt when they think of the Republican Party and President Bush.

And if you missed the Louisville speech? Don’t worry. Obama is one of our most readily downloadable politicians. As of this writing, a search for “Obama” on YouTube yields over 200 results, more than most of his major potential 2008 presidential opponents, including Joe Biden, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain—though not Hillary Clinton. You can get clips of all his recent hits, from the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that launched his national career, to a Senate speech defending habeas corpus. When viewing these clips, it’s easy to see why Obama has made converts out of the likes of the New York Times’s conservative columnist David Brooks, middle-aged soccer moms who never really cared about politics, and college kids—who are so taken with him that they may well exchange their Blender subscriptions for Congressional Quarterly.

Obama looks, feels, and talks his presidential part, and we love him at first sight. Obama on video reveals the secret formula for a superior political candidate come to life, and he maximizes the part of the equation that has to do with his photogenic presence and stage skills. Obama’s close-cropped hair emphasizes the prominence of his ears, which flare out, as if to capture every sound in the room—here is a man who can’t help but listen to you. At the same time, in what could be the successor to the Clintonian thumb, Obama frequently employs the gesture of motioning both his hands outwards from his chest, intimating that it’s his soul that’s speaking (and you simply have to listen to a man’s soul). When done with their emphases, those hands then fold back into a priestly clasp, waiting in contemplative readiness for their next release. Obama can make jokes to get things going, but at the right time he turns on his solemn mode and can speak calmly and confidently about Iraq and what our next steps should be. He sits upright, shoulders squared. He doesn’t have George W. Bush’s awkward hesitations or John Kerry’s aloofness. He assuredly lays down his potential plans for us, and although he doesn’t say anything more unique or insightful than other politicians of either stripe, he looks much better doing it, more capable saying it. If you think physical qualities are superficial matters in politics, consider a 2005 study by Princeton psychologists in which the degree of competency perceived in a politician’s face in a single second serves as a predictor for victory—with nearly 70 percent accuracy in some recent congressional elections. Obama looks, feels, and talks his presidential part, and we love him at first sight.

Obama is of course smart and introspective enough to realize the ludicrous amount of attention placed on the presidential ambition of a man who, as of early 2004, was simply one of 59 state senators in Illinois. “The only person more over-hyped than me is you,” he joked to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Perhaps Obama realizes stars and entertainers don’t make good presidents. In that role, his shelf life is however long the public will care to listen and look.

Between now and 2008 is an uncertain adventure both for the Democratic Party and for Barack Obama. Will voters still find him as appealing when Republican power and arrogance has been effectively diminished? Will his relatively immaculate image stay that way? Will he be out-muscled by the bigger boys and girls with their own eyes on the Oval Office? Will he be able to definitively overcome the unspoken racism that exists across the U.S.? Right now, none of these questions can be answered. But what is foreseeable is a likely future for America and Barack Obama beyond 2008. When Obama’s eloquence and sincerity no longer surprise his listeners, when he is not always the headliner and an unofficial Democrat heartthrob, when he is not always so likeable to everybody, when he has a few battle scars here and there—is when he might truly become presidential material. Part of the presidency is about politics and winning the election, then you actually have to be president. Run, Barack, run—when you are really ready.