The Book Club

Is Obama More Than Just a Well-Received Poster Boy for the Democratic Party?

Dear Alan,

The major problem of a politician at this time is the overweening importance of having to look at oneself and figure out whether that person can rise in the show business that our system has become. It seems that Barack Obama understands this as well as anyone we have recently seen hovering in the air as the prospects of becoming the lower half of a presidential ticket moves ever closer. He does not appear to be in a hurry, or overly happy to be noticed, and the senator from Illinois does not give the impression that Al Gore does of losing all charm and turning into a slab of concrete when faced with the triple threat of an audience, a microphone, and a camera.

Obama has done well in the public art of seeming at ease under the media lights. Supposedly this is because there is nothing to hide. Not only is what you see what you will get, but the whole package will surprise you by proving how much better it is than you thought. That is the importance of Obama’s demeanor of relaxation and the ability he has to express himself with the kind of humor reporters tell us will put those around the senator from Illinois at ease. In short, he always seems to be running for office, or for approval, or for the opportunity to have what he says taken seriously. He is a politician who began as a lawyer, both occupations representative of central aspects of our system.

The ability to structure an argument in clear language is just as important for the politician as it is for the lawyer—even so, many are understandably surprised whenever one of our politicians proves to have the talent necessary to write a clear narrative. Obama’s ability to write does not make him particularly interesting as a man and a husband and a father—and he should not have to be interesting in this way. Unfortunately, our society has become so cannibalistic toward public figures that its stomach growls loudly if not thrown the red meat of inner secrets of doubt, difficulty, and indecision as well as the triumph over the shortcomings that are not allowed to hold a true leader back.

That seems to me to be the purpose of the books that Barack Obama has written: He wants to provide a paper trail for his followers—and his critics and enemies—that will outlast and perhaps overshadow the ever-present dangers of cameras and how the footage of what one says is edited. In short, when Obama is asked a question that is perhaps too complicated to be answered both quickly and properly, the book will provide a substantial reference. If such a book is successful, it will stand in strong opposition to the offerings of intellectual and political fast food that our media exhibit as brassy substitutes for in-depth examination of any issue at all, no matter how important or potentially threatening. That is why the dehumanizing insult has become the preferred form of slander among those on the conservative and religious right. Ad hominen attack moves almost as fast as a speeding bullet.

To defend himself against such threats, Obama seems to be suggesting that in order to know what he really has to say about this society and the place of its power and persuasion in the world, all one has to do is read The Audacity of Hope. What a reader encounters between its covers is a man who comes off as sincere but not especially deep in what he thinks, yet his thoughts have an aloof coolness that almost always begins to disappear whenever someone on the liberal left self-righteously intones the term “right wing” or a conservative nearly spits out the term “left wing” or “liberal.”

Obama gives the impression that he might actually believe that the future of this country, like the weight of its past, rests upon a political willingness to compromise sensibly to achieve functional policy—a policy that could express the interests and the philosophy of more than one party. In that sense, his well articulated criticism of the “winner take all” attitude is important. It is questionable whether or not Obama is correct in referring to an earlier period when the House and the Senate were supposedly filled with men more interested in the substance and range of the policies formed in Washington than they were in constantly trumpeting how much better than the other party theirs might be.

The senator does not seem to understand that in those earlier days, politics so often pivoted on avoiding the ire of elected redneck Southerners who chaired powerful committees and were ruthlessly intent on maintaining the particularized and illegal position of segregation below the Mason-Dixon line. They might have had better manners than the elected officials of today, but they were far from amiable gentlemen.

Obama often seems to have a startlingly simple-minded understanding of other issues. Those include rebuilding the American educational system and addressing the problems of a world that has yet to understand how important it is to quickly get away from petroleum, which continues to spoil the international human nest. When caught between a rock and a hard place, the senator offers well-worded homilies but little more.

All of those perceptions can be improved upon, but perhaps the most essential thing looming before us all is improving the unquestionably important areas of the public and international life—like education, health care, the global economy, and the ecology. These are elements that should be subjected to the logistics wrought by hard facts. Change has to be made profitable in the short run and in the well-planned-out long run.

If Barack Obama gets together the logistics necessary for those kinds of revolutionary changes, he will be more than a well-received poster boy for the Democratic Party. He will have grown into a leader who has the chance to actually open up a new direction that transcends party affiliation and also allows both sides of the aisle to maintain their integrity and to endure the soul-chilling terms of the facts before us all. A tall order, but there have been no important times when short orders did the job.