Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's the Authenticity, Stupid

The Obama story has been fascinating to watch unfold.

Remember, Hillary Clinton was supposed to be the unstoppable force, the inevitable candidate of the Democrats. Obama was the alternative, anyone-but-Hillary candidate. He was the candidate you supported if you didn’t like Hillary and although the party leaders were for her, lots of ordinary people don’t like Hillary. Bill they like but Hillary is not Bill. So Obama started with some powerful support just because he wasn’t her.

Obama is best known for having given a great speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 about there being one America – not a collection of factions and ethnicities. (It’s ironic that Bill Clinton was given the same sort of opportunity at the 1988 convention and was booed off the stage for talking too long – yet won the presidency four years later.)

Obama has delivered essentially the same speech about one America ever since and people love it because although he is vague, Obama seems to be promising a post-racial, post-partisan era. I can’t speak for all Americans but for me this is an extremely attractive promise after so many years of blind hatred of Bush, Clinton, Reagan, etc. And while race is endlessly talked about in the U.S. it’s never a productive debate. The divisions by race and by political party are now so deep that it’s easy to imagine two or more Americas separate and bitterly antagonistic. So when a black Democrat says we should be “one America,” that’s an exciting and refreshing change.

As for some background, everyone here remembers Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech when he said “I have a dream”, but few people could tell you what exactly his dream was even though he defined it clearly in the very next lines. “I have a dream that my daughters will live in a country where they are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of the character.” I think people want race and color to be inconsequential. Yet in the past 30 years, race has become the most important thing and that’s a denial of the civil rights movement’s goal of a “color-blind” society. Ironically, the people who have the most to gain from this emphasis on skin color are black politicians, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and hundreds more around the country.

Here’s Charles Barron of New York one of the most divisive politicians in the country:

These leaders, who are almost exclusively Democrat, have appealed to ethnic loyalty to keep themselves secure in their small districts. Few have attempted to appeal to a broader group of voters which is why there are very few black senators (senators are elected by an entire state of millions not just a district of 30,000 people). At the same time the Democrats need the vote of every African-American just to be competitive. In 2000, Al Gore got 95% of black votes and he still lost. To get 95% of any large and dissimilar group of voters spread across a continent you basically need to cultivate resentment and fear of the other party. So there has been a poisonous cycle of division, distrust, and race fixation at work that is very different than Dr. King’s dream.

Obama seems to be saying that by voting for him you will be voting for an end to that cycle.

On the cynical side, Obama needs to say this in order to not be seen as “the black candidate” which would limit his appeal to African-American voters who are only about 10% of the total. Even more troubling, his post-racial message is essentially an appeal to vote for him because of his skin color rather than his character.

But what makes this more palatable is that he radiates an enormous sense of character.

Much is made of his big speeches in huge arenas but his real strength is in small and unscripted moments. He answers questions and responds to situations with grace and intelligence. He is never flustered. He never loses his cool. And even when he disagrees with you, he pays respect to your views. This is the polar opposite of Hillary who is strident, combative, and heavily scripted by her consultants. My favorite line of hers is “We need sound solutions not sound bites,” which is itself a sound bite.

If Obama wins the nomination, he’ll face John McCain who is similarly cool and appealing in a non-partisan way. Clearly voters want candidates who are authentic and unscripted. It will make for a very refreshing campaign.

Obama’s vulnerability is that up until now he has made himself a blank wall on which you can project anything you like. If he wins the next state primaries on Tuesday, he will have defeated Hillary and will be nominated at the party convention in July. Between now and then it will be very difficult to maintain the same level of enthusiasm that he enjoys now. Of course, Hillary could refuse to quit and the then the convention would be an ugly fight where race will surely become an issue.

I’ve read about the enthusiasm for Obama in Germany and elsewhere and I think it is easy to say that this is a superficial understanding of the man. But as much as we like to think that national elections are about issues and policies, voters have no way of knowing what actual policies any new administration will successfully pursue. Therefore, what these elections come down to are the “superficial” qualities.

I actually don’t think style and eloquence are entirely superficial. The way a candidate answers unanticipated questions and expresses ideas is important. People communicate in many non-verbal ways and Obama is like Kennedy in the graceful way he communicates non-verbally. George W. Bush, (who I still support even though I may be the only one left), has never been able to articulate his ideas verbally or non-verbally and this has been his undoing.

My prediction, Obama wins the nomination but loses against McCain because the he’s just too inexperienced. Sure, Hillary tried to tag him with this charge but Hillary's experience is roughly the same as Lady Bird Johnson's. McCain, by contrast, has spent twice as much time in a Vietcong prison camp as Obama has spent in the Senate.

Obama will have to articulate and defend positions and policies that differ markedly from McCain's. He'll probably pivot to the right, but that will alarm the lefties who have bet the farm on Obama and will be the first to pop the mania bubble once they realize they're about to be betrayed yet again.

BTW, I'm always wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But the more you learn about Obama, the more you learn he is The Inauthentic Man -- who he is and where he comes from politically is radically different from what he presents himself to be to the public. Shelby Steele calls him "The Invisible Man" because of his lack of authenticity, but I think that is being charitable. Take a look at Obama's far left college experience, his far left mentors, and his far left political friends, and his far left / Black nationalist spiritual leader. And his work as a political fixer in the corrupt Chicago political system. This is a different guy than you see making the light as air speeches of unity, ethics, non-partisanship. I'll stop there.