The Peril of Obama
The glamour of Obama may be hard to resist, but could it get the country into trouble if he wins the presidency?
The Atlantic , March 31, 2008
Barack Obama has brought glamour back to American politics—not the faux glamour-by-association of campaigning with movie stars or sailing with the Kennedys, but the real thing. The candidate himself is glamorous. Audiences project onto him the personal qualities and political positions they want in a president. They look at Obama and see their hopes and dreams.
Glamour is more than beauty or stage presence. You can’t generate it just by having a wife who dresses like Jackie Kennedy. Glamour is a beautiful illusion—the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell—that promises to transcend ordinary life and make the ideal real. It depends on a special combination of mystery and grace. Too much information breaks the spell. So does obvious effort. That’s why glamour is so rare in contemporary politics. In post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, skeptical voters demand full disclosure of everything from candidates’ finances to their medical records, and spin-savvy accounts of backstage machinations dominate political coverage.
Obama’s glamour gives him a powerful political advantage. But it also poses special problems for the candidate and, if he succeeds, for the country.
Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combines youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. Like Kennedy, he grew up in unusual circumstances that distance him from ordinary American life. But while it was Kennedy’s wealth that set him apart, Obama’s mystery stems from an upbringing and ethnicity that defy conventional categories. He is glamorous because he is different, and his differences mirror his audience’s aspirations for the country.
Supporters project onto him the identity they long for in a president. He seems to embody racial harmony and international understanding. Some enthusiasts suggest that Obama’s name and face alone could be enough to calm America’s adversaries and restore the American dream. His glamour explains a campaign paradox: how a man who wrote a race-conscious coming-of-age memoir about his search for a black identity could be touted as a “post-racial” candidate. The allure of his origins obscured his own account of his inner life.
That’s one reason the revelation of his religious mentor’s racially charged sermons proved so potent. Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright revealed to white audiences that the senator is a self-defined black man who listens sympathetically to—and might even share—the angry grievances of other African Americans. His rhetoric may be inclusive, but he is not colorblind. He does not, by his mere existence, make America’s racial divisions disappear.
Obama’s glamour also accounts for some of his campaign’s other stumbles. Plenty of candidates attract supporters who disagree with them on some issues. Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.
Unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the two glamorous presidents who shaped 20th-century American politics, Obama has left his political philosophy a mystery. His call for “a broad majority of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill—who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal” is not a statement of principles. It’s an invitation to the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like.
Like any candidate, Obama of course has position papers on specific issues. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist. As the NAFTA flap demonstrates, his supporters can’t even decide what the candidate really thinks about free trade. His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus—or that he’s a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support.
Where optimists fill in mystery with their hopes, however, pessimists project their fears. The flip side of glamour is horror: the vampire, the con man, the femme fatale, the double agent. These glamorous archetypes remind us of how easy it is to succumb to desire and manipulation. What, ask his opponents, is Obama hiding?
The same exotic distance that makes the candidate compelling to supporters fosters the persistent rumors that he’s a secret Muslim and, anonymous sources hint darkly, an enemy of the United States. More mundanely, the apparent effortlessness of his political career—the grace with which he seems to rise above ordinary politics—makes it harder for him to shrug off the unsavory allies who come with a career in Chicago, from indicted developer Tony Rezko to antigay preacher Rev. James Meeks. They spoil the fantasy.
To rely on illusions is to risk disillusionment. If Obama the dream candidate becomes Obama the real president, he’ll be forced to pick sides, make compromises, and turn “hope” and “change” into policies some people like and some people don’t. Or, like the movie star governor of California, he might choose instead to preserve his glamour by letting others set the agenda. Either way, his face won’t make America’s worries disappear, and his cool, polite manner won’t eliminate political disagreements. Some of his supporters will feel disappointed, even betrayed. The result could be a backlash, heightened partisan conflict, and a failed presidency. George W. Bush ran as a uniter, and Jimmy Carter promised national renewal.
Obama must have an inkling of these perils. He knows glamour better than most people, having grown up enchanted with the glamorized image of his distant father, an image shaped by his mother’s stories and his own yearnings. “The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader—my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image,” he writes in Dreams from My Father. That ideal shaped Obama’s aspirations and character. “It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all of the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”
That image was false. Despite his early promise, Obama’s father died a bitter, lonely minor bureaucrat, leaving a fractured family to fight over his tiny estate. “All my life,” concluded the young Obama when he learned the truth, “I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost!” By then, however, the glamour had done its work, providing meaning and purpose to the son’s formative years. At the risk of bitter disillusionment, perhaps Obama hopes to do for the country what his father’s image did for him: provide a noble lie that tricks us into self-improvement.