The Barack Obama phenomenon puzzles me. I recognize that he is a handsome, articulate politician who seems, for the moment at least, to have the capacity to square circles. In recent months I’ve asked my students and former students, who are exceptionally thoughtful young people, whom they were supporting for president. Roughly three-quarters of them, including some who described themselves as independents or Republicans, support Obama, almost all with enthusiasm.
When I asked why they liked him, their responses, even from those who were articulate, were almost all vague. Race played some role in their views, but it didn’t seem to be primary. Mostly they told me about their disdain for both President Bush and the Democratic Congress, and the need for “change,” with little elaboration as to what that change would be.
What’s odd is that I get the same leap of faith with no clear basis of support from older and in some cases politically savvy and highly intelligent people. With these older folk, not all of whom are liberal, neither Obama’s lack of achievements, nor his woolly foreign policy statements, nor dubious episodes in his career such as his infatuation with a Black Nationalist minister and involvements with shady Chicago characters has any effect. I’ve had a half-dozen variants of the following conversation:
Usually Thoughtful Friend: “Obama has big ideas.”
Fred: “What are these ideas?”
Friend: “He’s a very bright guy who went to Columbia and Harvard.”
Fred: “Again, what are these ideas?”
Friend: “Diplomacy and civility are important.”
Fred: “Who would argue with that?”
Friend: “I can’t explain it, he’s just got something.”
If I continue to press, what I’m told, in a tone of voice suggesting that there’s an unspoken consensus on the subject, is that “this election is about character and personality.” If they’re Bush critics, I ask, “But isn’t that what W ran on in 2000? “Yes,” comes back the answer, “but this is different.”
So what’s this all about? Some of it is that Obama represents an opportunity to ditch Hillary now that Dems think they’ve found a better horse. But for those I’ve talked to who are older partisan Democrats who’ve reconciled themselves to the loss of white middle class male voters, Obama’s appeal in part is that he incarnates the Democratic Party. He is both a highly educated member of the upper middle class and a half-minority. As one of my acquaintances put it, referring to the way Obama blends an educated articulation of policy positions with the uplifting cadences of the African-American preacher: “Who better to represent us?” Some continue: “Who better to heal our racial wounds?” When I press them on this point, explaining that I live in the most racially diverse neighborhood in the U.S. and that I’m not looking for a priestly President who can absolve me of my sins, I’m told that such absolution is a good thing—whether I want it or not.
Among the younger people I’ve talked to, he draws adulation from both starry-eyed young liberals and those who see him as beyond partisan politics. That’s an impressive feat, a tribute to his ability to project an image of rectitude unsullied by the ordinary trench warfare of politics. But there is a two part question that seems to stop all of the Obama admirers, young or old, that I’ve talked to in their tracks. Can he, I ask, govern? Could he be a commander in chief? The most common reactions, I get is “that’s beside the point,” or “I’m not sure,” or “I haven’t thought about that,” or “you’ve got a point, but . . . .” The election to date—with Huckabee as Obama’s GOP counterpart—is turning into an episode of American Idol where the performance is the thing, albeit with a religious twist.