Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Obama's Ant Traps

As you should know by now, I've been reading Barack Obama's new book, The Audacity of Hope. While most critically minded people rightly point out that we don't know very much about Obama, I must candidly admit that I am an unabashed fan, and have been ever since his famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. I know that thus far the media has over-hyped him, ignoring any potential flaws and proclaiming him somewhere between a "rising star" and a "rock star." He has a personal magnetism that has so far kept too many reporters from digging too deep and uncovering whatever bones he doesn't want us to find.

We don't yet know how he will respond when he is eventually tested, as he undoubtedly will be. We don't know what he will do when the bright inquisitive lights of a press corp that loves to tear down what they have built up turn their critical gaze on him.

But I like him. I like him a great deal. Listening to his speeches, watching his interviews, and especially reading his books have filled him with a hope that I haven't had in a long time. Perhaps restored my faith in the potential of the American political process, even. If this man, who caters to our best instincts instead of our worst, who encourages us to rise up rather than tear others down, who uses the language of faith and values while espousing a faith that I can believe in and a set of values that I can abide by, can be a serious presidential or vice-presidential candidate...

I have to stop myself there. Can't get too carried away, can I? After all, he hasn't been tested yet. He has never really been on the national stage. He's only won one statewide election, and that wasn't in my state, and it was barely opposed. The Illinois Republicans ran a carpet-bagging, fear-mongering radical against him after their original candidate was brought down in a sex scandal.

But so far I've seen so much that I like. And, while I'd love to focus on policy matters or political philosophy or even human decency, what I want most to point out today is basic humanity. Barack Obama can't help but make politicians seem just a little bit human, just a little bit ordinary. I know, I know. I'm saying that the media-proclaimed rock star of the Democratic Party, a man thus far known more for style than substance, is a humble and humanizing figure. I'm saying that this media darling, this charismatic, luminescent figure actually takes the shine off politicians. That seems ridiculous to say.

But the stories that he tells about himself so often focus on the normal, the prosaic. And I like that. Whenever he is tempted to take himself, his hype, and the power of his political position too seriously, something happens to drag him back to earth. And he shares it. For whatever reason that makes me trust him, and trust him a great deal more than the would-be-gods of politics. Perhaps some scandal will break that will disillusion me. Or, worse, perhaps he uses this face to accumulate power, much like the faux-populist currently in the White House, only to, like President Bush the Younger, abuse the weight and power of his office. Time will tell. But, in the meantime, enjoy this story from his latest book:

One day in February I found myself in particularly good spirits, having just completed a hearing on legislation that Dick Lugar and I were sponsoring aimed at restricting weapons proliferation and the black-market arms trade. Because Dick was not only the Senate's leading expert on proliferation issues but also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prospects for the bill seemed promising. Wanting to share the good news, I called Michelle from my D.C. office and started explaining the significance of the bill - how shoulder-to-air missiles could threaten commercial air travel if they fell into the wrong hands, how small-arms stockpiles left over from the Cold War continued to feed conflict across the globe. Michelle cut me off.

"We have ants."


"I found ants in the kitchen. And in the bathroom upstairs."


"I need you to buy some ant traps on your way home tomorrow. I'd get them myself, but I've got to take the girls to their doctor's appointment after school. Can you do that for me?"

"Right. Ant traps."

"Ant traps. Don't forget, okay honey? And buy more than one. Listen, I need to go to a meeting. Love you."

I hing up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.


Liam said...

My friends and I have been debating the whole Obama thing lately. A lot of people feel he's jumping into the ring too soon, he's too young, too untested. I myself am reserving judgment -- I have not let my initial excitement about him wear off, nor do I dismiss the possibility that it's all hype. We'll have to see how he holds up once the politica gloves come off. In the meantime, it's still nice to hear good things about him.

Sandalstraps said...

I hear a great deal about Obama being "too young," but I have to wonder about a society that views someone in their mid 40s as "young." Admittedly we are living longer than we used to, and that shifts the relative judgments of age. But a 45 or 46 year old as being young?!?

Now, Obama is certainly not old, but unless he lives into his 90s more than half of his life has already been lived. And, of course, he's more than a decade older than Jesus was.

He hasn't been on the national stage very long, that's true. But when it comes to running for president, that may be a good thing. It is difficult to move from the Senate to the White House because, if you've been in the Senate very long, you've cast more than a few difficult votes. Those votes will be dragged out of their context and misconstrued, becoming fodder for negative campaign ads.

And, as some commentators have noticed, after the debacle that has been the Bush White House, being a little green may not be such a bad thing. Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al have given experience a bad name.

My point? While Obama hasn't faced a nearly critical enough media, most of the criticism that he does get is unfair. Because we know almost nothing about him - save what he tells us about himself - most of the criticism is vapid, empty. Focusing on all the wrong things.

For the best example of this uncritical criticism, see this op ed piece by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of one of the more interesting books I've read, The Assasignation of the Black Male Image. While I agree with his assertion that blacks won't (or, at least, shouldn't) vote for Obama just because he's black, his specific criticisms of Obama ring hollow.

This is especially true when, after explaining that Obama is "too new on the political scene, too untested, too politically nice, too liberal" to win, he says:

There's yet another reason why many blacks are skeptical about Obama. His ascendancy as a lawyer-politician represents a threat to the old-guard generation of black leaders who made the jump to politics from their work as preachers or as civil rights activists.

This willfully ignores two of the only things we do know about Obama: he first worked as a community organizer, and, while he is a lawyer, he is a civil rights lawyer.

Perhaps this best represents the problem of starting the presidential discussion so far in advance of the actual election: with nothing to talk about, but air time and column space to fill, columnists and talking heads have to come up with something to say. So, they speculate endlessly on meaningless polls and "electability," discussing nebulous topics like "momentum," "buzz," and "energy." And all we're left with is a discussion of process rather than policy.

Sandalstraps said...

For a better (both in terms of its content, and as an example of genre) example of media criticism of Obama as process rather than policy oriented, see this from the Christian Science Monitor's Dante Chinni.

After lauding Obama for his media savvy, Chinni then performs a bit of media psychoanalysis:

Ironically, however, a big reason for the press's fascination with him is that he is almost as much a mystery to the media as he is to the public. He has no lengthy public record we in the media can go back and study, as is the case with most senators – including Clinton – or governors. Other than his two years in the Senate, his political experience consists of seven years in the Illinois Senate. He has no previous big, close campaigns we can look at to see what he did in a pinch. He is as fresh and new to most of us as he is to you.

He then concludes with this mild zinger of a forecast:

Right now, Obama enjoys a sweet story line. But at some point, the media will be eager to fill in the missing pages. And when they do, Obama may find that his biggest strength with the media has its problems.