That Off-Putting Obamamania By Betsy Newmark

Two liberal writers both wrestle with the creepiness that they perceive in the idolatry of Barack Obama. Joel Stein begs the Obamaphiles to just cool it.

You are embarrassing yourselves. With your “Yes We Can” music video, your “Fired Up, Ready to Go” song, your endless chatter about how he’s the first one to inspire you, to make you really feel something — it’s as if you’re tacking photos of Barack Obama to your locker, secretly slipping him little notes that read, “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” Some of you even cry at his speeches. If I were Obama, and you voted for me, I would so never call you again.

Obamaphilia has gotten creepy. I couldn’t figure out if the two canvassers who came to my door Sunday had taken Ecstasy or were just fantasizing about an Obama presidency, but I feared they were going to hug me. Scarlett Johansson called me twice, asking me to vote for him. She’d never even called me once about anything else. Not even to see “The Island.”

What the Cult of Obama doesn’t realize is that he’s a politician. Not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one. He has not been firing up the Senate with stirring Cross-of-Gold-type speeches to end the war. He’s a politician so soft and safe, Oprah likes him. There’s talk about his charisma and good looks, but I know a nerd when I see one.

He confesses that he too has fallen for the Obama craze, but he doesn’t really respect himself in the morning and calls for his fellow Obamaphiles to cut back on all the inspiration-talk, cutesy videos, and tears.

Joe Klein has had an schizophrenic relationship with the Clintons, first skewering Bill Clinton with his fictionalization in Primary Colors and then with a biting 1994 Newsweek essay on Clinton and the “Politics of Promiscuity” that connected Clinton’s personal proclivities with his political style. Then later, in 2003 published a defense of Clinton’s presidency in The Natural. Apparently, his disgust at Bill’s personal morals does not stop Klein from admiring Mrs. Clinton. And he goes after Senator Obama in a way that would make any Clinton staffer proud. First he praises the inspirational speeches that Obama can deliver, but, like Joel Stein, he finds the tone of the campaign off-putting.

And yet there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism–“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”–of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. “This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It’s different not because of me. It’s different because of you.” That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause–other than an amorphous desire for change–the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.

That is not unprecedented. It has echoes of Howard Dean’s 2004 primary effort, although in Dean’s case the propellant was neither substance nor the candidate’s early, courageous voice against the war. But Dean soon found that wasn’t enough. In June 2003 he told me he needed to broaden his movement, reach out past the young and the academic and find a greater array of issues that could inspire working people. He never quite found that second act, and his campaign became about process, not substance: the hundreds of thousands of supporters signing up on the Internet, the millions of dollars raised. He lost track of the rest of the world; his campaign was about … his campaign.

He goes on to praise Hillary’s grasp of policy issues, but acknowledges that she is totally overshadowed by Obamamania.

Obama’s strength is inspiration, and it’s also his weakness. In the recent past, Democrats have favored candidates who offer meaty, detailed policy prescriptions–usually to the party’s detriment–and that is not Obama’s game. After his Iowa victory, his stump speech had become a soufflĂ© untroubled by much substance of any sort. He has rectified that, to some extent. He now spends some time talking about the laments of average Americans he has met along the way; then he dives into a litany of solutions he has proposed to address the laments. But those are not nearly so convincing as Clinton’s versions of the same; of course, Clinton has a tragic deficit when it comes to inspiration.

There is an odd, anachronistic formality to Obama’s stump speech: it is always the same. It sets his audiences afire, but it does not reach very far beyond them. It is no accident that Obama is nearly invincible in caucus states, where the ability to mobilize a hard core of activists is key–but not so strong in primaries, where more diverse masses of people are involved. He should be very worried that this nomination is likely to be decided in the big working-class primary states of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.

If Obama continues to rack up big wins throughout the rest of February as he did yesterday, the momentum might be so strong come March that Clinton will not be able to put together a coalition of working-class voters, women, and Hispanics to stop Obama. And I find it hard to believe that John McCain will be able to do what the Clinton machine couldn’t. As both Stein and Klein are sensing, we could find ourselves with a president elected on waves of emotion and fantasy. Then we’ll face a moment similar to that last line in that great political movie from the 1970s, The Candidate, when the handsome charismatic Robert Redford character who has campaigned on his looks and with meaningless slogans (sound familiar) wins the race and then turns to his campaign advisers and asks “What do we do now?” How do you govern when all you have a mandate for is “change” and inspiration? How can Obama keep his image of being above politics when his followers will be waiting for him to enact some sort of real change? How long will the fantasy of Obama last through the realities of governing?

This content was used with the permission of Betsy Newmark.

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