You’re welcome to believe otherwise, but I don’t think the press has gone in the tank for Barack Obama.
As long ago as March, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz demolished charges that the press was soft on Obama by cataloging the tough pieces published by reporters exhuming the candidate’s past: his financial relationship with friend and fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who is now a convicted felon; his friendship with former Weather Undergrounder William Ayers; his casting of 130 “present” votes as an Illinois legislator; his nuclear energy compromise in the U.S. Senate, said to benefit a contributor; incendiary comments made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; and more.
To that list add the recent critical dispatches tarring Obama as a flip-flopper. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg found “the big papers … assembling quite a list of matters on which the candidate has ‘changed his position,’ including Iraq, abortion rights, federal aid to faith-based social services, capital punishment, gun control, public financing of campaigns, and wiretapping.”
What’s unique about Obama and his candidacy is that almost none of the stuff the press throws at him sticks. Nor is the press alone in its inability to stick him. Hillary Clinton hurled rocks, knives, and acid at her rival even before the primaries (see this Jake Tapper piece from ABC News) and later upped the ante in desperation. She claimed that he was unprepared to serve as commander in chief and accused him of insulting gun owners and the religiously faithful. The eleventh-hour tactics may have won Clinton votes, but they failed to undermine Obama.
You could call Obama the Teflon-coated candidate, but this would miss the fact that his slickness goes all the way to the core. What has gone unexplored until now is this: How did Barack Obama achieve superslipperiness without becoming greasy?
In a 2006 profile in Men’s Vogue by Jacob Weisberg, Obama acknowledges that every politician, himself included, has “some of that reptilian side to him.” To win public office, a politician must powder his scales, trim his nails, and tame his swinging tail. It’s called persona-building, and everybody does it. But just compare the persona Obama crafted to the one crafted by Mitt Romney. The Romney bodysuit is all snapping teeth and empty glad-handing. Obama, on the other hand, projects a remarkably appealing and authentic character. He’s the koala of iguanas.
Whether by design or by chance (I’d say design), Obama took possession of this public face with the publication of his confessional memoir, Dreams From My Father, in 1995. Written before he ran for office, Dreams shrewdly moots his youthful drug use as “some bad decisions.” When the New York Times rereported this period in Obama’s life for a Feb. 9, 2008, piece, it probably expected to uncover spectacular dope-crazed tales. Instead it found evidence that Obama’s memoir might have exaggerated his drug use. An Obama friend—now a fundraiser—tells the Times Obama was somewhat of a reticent drug user: “If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus. … He was not even close to being a party animal.”
Obama’s poise and discipline allow him to resist whatever bait the press and politicians dangle in front of him. When he does address scandalous material, he generally does so to his advantage. In June, when the Web and cable news advanced false rumors that Michelle Obama had called white people “whitey” on a videotape, Obama squelched the gossip with a denial and, as Ben Smith of Politicoreported, put the press on notice by questioning the appropriateness of the question. Smears undermine a politician only when they appeal to voters’ pre-existing idea of what sort of person a politician is. Seeing as the pre-existing idea of Obama is so positive, the Obama-haters have had trouble portraying him either as a literal bomb thrower, like William Ayers, or a figurative one, like the Rev. Wright. When the smear artists dress him up as a radical or as “madrassa”-educated, the ploys only backfire.
Like Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama has constructed a professional résumé low on embarrassing material. In this regard, Obama’s lack of legislative accomplishment is a genuine achievement. They can’t hit you where they can’t find you, which is a gambit that worked for Roberts in his confirmation hearings. Separating the real Obama from the persona is probably impossible, as Ryan Lizza hints in The New Yorker, where he writes:
[Obama] campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.
Obama has maintained his persona by keeping the campaign press corps on a starvation diet. Yet such a strategy becomes self-limiting as the race for the White House narrows down to a two-person contest. Voters in the general election, as opposed to the primaries, tend to want more answers and fewer gestures.
At some point he’s going to have to start answering questions, an observation that shouldn’t come as a surprise to Obama’s chief strategist, former journalist David Axelrod. Last week, Slate’s John Dickerson excoriated Obama for his double-talking ways in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams about his position on the surge. Writes Dickerson: “[H]e suggested that he’d always said the surge would decrease violence in Iraq. That’s not just spin. It’s not true.”
It’s one thing to stiff-arm the press, but quite another to lie. Lying isn’t something that becomes Obama—or his persona.
Throw your correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org and see if it sticks. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word persona in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to email@example.com.