Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Obamamenon

With less than two weeks until the election you can't help but notice while walking the streets of DC that the city has a full-blown case of Obama fever. While the full backing of Democratic candidates in presidential elections is nothing new around these parts, the current level of enthusiasm is unprecedented. The love-fest goes beyond the usual bumper stickers and yard signs into something approaching idol worshiping. Indeed, it is not the mere candidacy or platform that people support, but a complete embrace of the man himself. His very image can be widely found on buttons and t-shirts (often accompanied by Martin Luther King Jr., with whom I see nothing in common except similar skin pigmentation). I certainly don't recall ever seeing someone wearing a portrait of John Kerry four years ago.

As the most reliably Democratic member of the electoral college, Washington DC hardly counts as a battleground state. The pro-Obama pageantry therefore can not be interpreted as a bid to sway anyone's mind, but is likely more of a signaling device to tell other people "I am one of you." I wonder if the displays of Obama's likeness by many white liberals is also at least in part a signal that "I'm one of the good ones, I am tolerant and willing to support a black man for president." But maybe I am completely off base...

In his recent election special John Stossel devoted the opening segment to covering the intense feelings that both candidates inspire in their supporters. While he was able to track down a pretty enthused McCain supporter to serve as balance it is readily apparent that Obama's support is on another level.

Oprah Winfrey famously declared him to be "the one." Paeans, odes of support and love songs have literally been sung in his honor. Rolling Stone, ostensibly a music magazine, has twice put the man on its cover, including this one that gives him a halo effect:

In San Francisco he has been depicted as a religious icon:

People have even taken to carving pumpkins in his honor:

His supporters utter things like "We feel we're on the brink of a whole new life in this country."

Obama himself hasn't done much to downplay his abilities, recently declaring that, "We will win this election and, you and I together, we're going to change the country and change the world." For the better part of his campaign his platform chiefly consisted of equating himself with hope:

All of this for a man whose record of accomplishment isn't terribly distinguished (Harvard lawyers turned politician aren't exactly a rare breed). That, I believe, is actually the crux of why he generates such feelings of adoration. The flip side of having a thin resume is that you don't have much of an established record. Serving as a blank slate, people can pour all of their wishes and hopes on to him. He's whatever you want him to be.

Many people see a post-racial man from a diverse background that can promote understanding and rise above ethnic divisions. Many blacks see a man that is keenly aware of his black roots (perhaps with Jeremiah Wright in mind) that will pay special attention to their needs. Liberals see a man with the most left-wing voting record in the Senate and applaud. Moderates and even some conservatives praise his economic team as a sign that he ultimately a pragmatist. Some praise him for his willingness to engage with the world, while others see the man that has slammed free trade and promised no aversion to bombing America's enemies including in Pakistan.

He is, in short, an amorphous figure. Assuming his election, however, the true nature of the man will come into sharp relief once he takes office and we will see what happens to his current fervent support. I suspect it will falter, which will ultimately prove a good thing for voters who perhaps need to relearn that politicians are merely people that often deserve our ire and contempt, and on those rarest of occasions our thanks.

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