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The Chicago Cipher

What do people see when they look at Barack Obama? Whatever they want to see. But what happens when he has to define himself?


Illustration by Demetrios Psillos  

We had been on the phone for barely five minutes—talking about another subject entirely, as it happened—when the political consultant Mark McKinnon started spinning an elaborate and alluring fantasy about, what else, Barack Obama and the presidency. “There’s this great documentary out right now about Barry Goldwater,” said McKinnon, who served until recently as media guru to George W. Bush and currently advises John McCain. “And it reveals that Goldwater and John F. Kennedy were having conversations about how, if they were the nominees in 1964, they were going to jump on a plane and campaign together around the country. Which is a really interesting idea, and the sort of thing you could see Obama and McCain doing. I mean, wouldn’t that be great?”

Now, McKinnon isn’t exactly your typical professional partisan: Before taking up with Bush in 1998, he was a lifelong Democrat. And yet in many quarters in Washington and beyond, his reverie—not in its quirky specifics but in its expectant, roseate spirit—is the political dream du jour. The dream of Obama’s not simply running but transforming our politics. Indeed, transforming the country.

Before all that could happen, of course, Obama would have to win the Democratic nomination. And here the dream is equally seductive. Among many serious Democrats, the consensus is that if Obama runs—an eventuality everyone now considers a foregone conclusion—the contest immediately becomes a two-horse race between him and Hillary Clinton. Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg goes further, contending that “Obama, not Hillary, [would] be the de facto Democratic front-runner.” And Markos Moulitsas, the commissar of the liberal blog Daily Kos, goes further still: “If Obama runs, he wins.”

Let me say that I find Obama an intriguing and compelling character: obviously talented, often inspiring, the possessor of nearly infinite potential. I have no doubt that he shouldn’t wait—that the time for him to run is now. And I’m prepared to believe that he would make a stronger Democratic standard-bearer than Clinton or any of the other wannabes nervously awaiting his decision. But let me also say that Weisberg, Kos, and many other Obamamaniacs must be smoking something (and, whatever it is, I’d like a taste). For all his promise, Obama is basically an empty vessel, with vulnerabilities that have been obscured by his blinding, meteoric ascent. And though it’s not impossible for him to win the Democratic nomination, the road to that destination will be rougher than his adherents admit—or, quite possibly, than Obama himself imagines.

Two weeks back, when Obama rolled into town to address a charity dinner for kids in poverty (and squeeze in a few meetings with big-dollar donors such as George Soros), I hustled over to the Mandarin Oriental to catch his act. As a speaker, Obama is cool in the strictest sense, his tone even and conversational, his gestures spare and deliberate. He began his talk with a story about Robert F. Kennedy’s trip to the Mississippi Delta in 1967. Visiting one tar-paper shack, Kennedy encountered a child with a distended belly and hollow eyes. “At that point, Bobby Kennedy begins to cry,” Obama said, “and he asks, ‘How can a country like this allow it?’ How can a country like this allow it?”

Obama’s affinity for RFK is pronounced and unsurprising. In the fall of 2005, he recounted that same story in the keynote he delivered at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Ceremony—a speech in which he identified the qualities that have made the ghost of RFK enduring. Charisma and eloquence. Youth and energy. “An idealism not based in rigid ideology.” An outlook “hard to place … into any of the categories that so often constrain us politically.” The very set of qualities, that is, that many people now discern in Obama—and that he so clearly aims to project.

Yet the differences between Obama and RFK are many, beginning with the length and depth of their résumés when their eyes turned toward the White House. By 1968, Kennedy had not only served three years as a senator from New York but three as U.S. Attorney General. He’d been a central player in shaping his brother’s foreign policy and had spent much of the decade knee-deep in the civil-rights movement. Obama’s stint in the Illinois State Senate pales by comparison.

God knows the last thing I’d argue is that Obama ought to pad his CV by loitering for years in the Senate, an institution that prepares one for little besides the exercise of pomposity. But, substantively speaking, Obama hasn’t even made the most of his brief time there. The legislation he has offered has been uniformly mundane, marginal, and provincial—securing additional funding for veterans, to cite but one example.


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