Obama’s Cocky Messianism

NASHUA – There was a moment during Barack Obama’s rally at Nashua North High School on Saturday when I thought, Wow, Iowa has gone to his head.

Inside the gym, packed to capacity with 2600 people, Obama was describing to the crowd how his speeches generally work: “At the end—or maybe somewhere in the middle—a shaft of light comes through and hits you and you experience an epiphany: I have to vote for Barack.”

Obama has attracted Jesus comparisons since announcing his candidacy. He’s been described as the party’s savior . A Chicago art gallery displayed a sculpture depicting Obama crowned with a neon halo. Slate ’s Timothy Noah kept tabs on these and other revelations in the “Obama Messiah Watch.”

But now, with Iowa as his witness, Obama is he starting to sound like he believes the prophecies, too. The “epiphany” line was a joke—but he also kind of meant it. Because he’s loose on the stump, self-deprecating yet cocky, Obama gets away with appropriating the language of his own deification. He mocks it, but at the same time reinforces it. It’s hard to be humble when your overflow room is overflowing.

There were other moments of self-puffery. At one point, he introduced a volunteer as the chair of “Obamans for—” He caught himself. “Nashuans for Obama.” However innocently, Obama had just bestowed himself with fame’s highest honor: his very own adjectival form.

Then there was his refrain: “In three days’ time …” Politicians always go out of their way to mention the specific date of the election—”Go vote for me on Jan. 8”—just to pound the date into dumb voters’ heads. But he repeated the phrase so much it started to sound like a rosary. “In three days’ time,” he said, voters would have the chance to make history. “In three days’ time,” they could send a message to Washington that the old days are over. Not just “in three days” or “three days from now.” “In three days’ time,” the rock will be rolled away and lo, the tomb will be empty.

Obama’s speaking style, with its preacherly repetitions and rhythms, is nothing new. But the content of his speech—if you stop and actually listen to it—is aggressively vapid. “This change thing is catching on,” he told people. He’s running, as he always says, because of “what Dr. King called the ‘fierce urgency of now’ .” Here’s the closest he came to defining “hope”: It’s “imagining, then working for, then righting for what didn’t seem possible before.” But in the final days before the primary, when the three top Democrats have such similar platforms, you don’t win by reading position papers. You win with catharsis.

After watching the speech, Matt Dibella, 20, from Nashua, said he was initially undecided. I asked who he’s for now. “Obama,” he said. “Because I just saw him.” That seems to be the way it works for many young people: To see him is to be for him.

Others fear the messiah analogy is a little too apt. “The thing I’m worried about is that he’s going to get shot,” said a woman from Boston who preferred not to give her name. “What he’s been saying scares people.” You hear this idea all over, particularly among African-Americans in the South , often as a reason to vote for someone else.

In other ways, Obama doesn’t act messianic—just cocky. He laughs at his own jokes, a staccato “heh” that sounds naked when spoken into a mic in a large auditorium. He strays from the script as other candidates never would. A quip about “my cousin Dick Cheney” turns into a tangent about how, “When they do these genealogical surveys, you hope they say you’re related to somebody cool. Abraham Lincoln or Willie Mays or something. But Dick Cheney: That’s a letdown.”

But the driving message of his speech was, See what Iowa did? You can do it, too. By the end, the crowd was erupting, signs were waving, and if you looked real close, you could see the ceiling windows emitting a thousand little golden shafts of light.