“If You Don’t Know Me By Now. . . ”


<i> "Hi there! I'll be right down." </i>

"Hi there! I'll be right down."


My Tribune colleague, Jim Tankersley, today blogged on The Swamp about two op-ed pieces that take Barack Obama to task for being, for want of a better word, a smoothie.  

In the Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen indicates he’s not ready to believe the hype, basically saying without saying it that he considers John McCain to be the safer choice. And he says he doesn’t know Obama.

Obama is often likened to John F. Kennedy. The comparison makes sense. He has the requisite physical qualities — handsome, lean, etc. — plus wit, intelligence, awesome speaking abilities and a literary bent. He also might be compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt for many of those same qualities. Both FDR and JFK were disparaged early on by their contemporaries for, I think, doing the difficult and making it look easy. Eleanor Roosevelt, playing off the title of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, airily dismissed him as more profile than courage. Similarly, it was Walter Lippmann’s enduring misfortune to size up FDR and belittle him: Roosevelt, he wrote, was “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for office, would very much like to be president.” Lippmann later recognized that he had underestimated Roosevelt.

My guess is that Obama will make a fool of anyone who issues such a judgment about him. Still, the record now, while tissue thin, is troubling. The next president will have to be something of a political Superman, a man of steel who can tell the American people that they will have to pay more for less — higher taxes, lower benefits of all kinds — and deal in an ugly way when nuclear weapons seize the imagination of madmen.

The question I posed to that prominent Democrat was just my way of thinking out loud. I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I’m still not sure, though, what’s in it.

And there here is Jay Cost of RealClear Politics, who finds fault with Obama’s message:

The second problem is that this narrative might be keeping him from doing things that winning Democrats have typically done. Strong Democratic candidates like FDR, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton made “average folks” feel like they were one of them. Each connected with average people in his own way, but each connected. Most of them could do this because they had typical backgrounds themselves. Obama doesn’t, but neither did Roosevelt (though of course Roosevelt’s background was quite different from Obama’s). And yet FDR could talk to average people better than anybody.

The common touch is not a trifling quality. Most voters are not policy experts, and they lack detailed political information. Yet they must still make a choice. In that situation, what should swing voters (i.e. those not guided by partisanship) do? It makes sense for them to vote for the guy with whom they can relate. That’s a candidate who can be trusted to do what the voters would want him to do.

Obama’s narrative seems to preclude this quality. The claim of greatness carries with it an implication of distance. If Obama is great, and the rest of us are average, how can we identify with Obama, or he with us?

We’ve been hearing about Obama’s “elitism” for a long time–an idea launched by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Obama, the critique goes, acts more like a leader of a movement instead of a politician. And he is uncomfortable with Obama’s spiritual imagery: light, fluffy clouds, rising sun, etc. (Although if you want to steal, why not from the best?)

But again, who is responsible for Obama being cast as Gandhi with a jump shot? Whose decision was it to cover his rallies in Europe wall-to-wall, Brian-Williams-on-the-scene style?

And Cost’s essay also reminds me of Peggy Noonan’s op-ed a few months back about how Obama could not connect with America’s enduring mythology and symbology–Sutter’s Mill, Henry Ford and all that–because of his international background.

This line of criticism prompts several questions, but they boil down to this: Who is control of the shape of the campaign? Who is in charge, the campaigns or the press that covers them? 

In other words, it’s a frequent critique that Obama plays to the media — and it to him — with no regard for substance. Cohen seems to be saying, “Well, show me what you’ve got.”

But would you say he hasn’t tried? And if he has, whose fault is it that you still feel unsatisfied? It’s all there on both McCain and Obama’s websites, for all to see. 

This is true, by the way, for McCain as well. What gets more coverage, a speech on foreign policy or his forgetting that Czechoslovakia no longer exists? (Remember in 1996 when Bob Dole called Los Angeles’ baseball team the “Brooklyn” Dodgers?)

You see where I am going.

Cohen and Cost are craving authenticity. But is there a platform that can deliver that? The Bush administration was derided for referring to the press as a “filter” but if it isn’t that, isn’t at least the medium that delivers the candidate, packaged into digestible bits?

Obama is inexperienced. McCain is old. Obama has no foreign policy experience. McCain might start global war just because he’s cranky. 

Cohen says he doesn’t know Obama. The candidate has been running for president since February 2007 and has probably garnered more media attention than any presidential aspirant in history.

Cost complains Obama can’t connect with blue-collar voters. When I was covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign in West Virginia, I heard much of the same there. What did voters tell me? They didn’t “know” Obama.

It brings to mind Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” I was shopping at the Harris Teeter yesterday and there’s the Obama family, staring out at me on the cover of People. 

And there was the McCain family, starting out me from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (I’m sorry. Couldn’t resist.)*

Is Obama authentic? How can we know. He was bashed for not wearing a flag pin (embracing the kind of symbology that Cost and Noonan seem to demand) and then bashed for wearing one. Which is the real him?

How can we know? How did we know that George W. Bush’s conversion to Christianity was real? That Bill Clinton loved the common man, even though he attended Oxford and Yale? That Ronald Reagan really was a skilled leader with the nation’s interests at heart, not a former actor good at reading a teleprompted?

We can’t. We can only know what they stand for, to the extent that a campaign focuses on that. And there Cohen does bring up some of Obama’s (and McCain’s) policy positions. But this really hasn’t been a campaign about that, even though the economy is in free-fall and Osama bin Laden’s is hanging around the mountains of Pakistan like he owns the place. 

We want to know what’s in the man’s heart, but politics precludes him from telling us. Confess your fears or your doubts or your exhaustion, as Hillary Clinton did, and you get savaged for not being tough enough. Letting the public inside isn’t considered presidential. Obama says a flag-pin is false patriotism and gets destroyed. McCain confesses to not being an ace on the economy and suddenly, he’s unfit.

Why not, then, trade in symbols and sound-bites? Why not tack to the lowest common denominator? Campaigns are, by their very nature, inauthentic. They suppress individuality in favor of safety. (How many commentators have screamed “Let McCain be McCain!”) 

If Obama goes to a factory or bolts down a shot of whiskey, do you feel comfortable that he’s struck common ground? Is that more authentic, or less? 

I do, however, like Cost’s idea of a bus tour from Baltimore to Denver in advance of the Democratic National Convention along I-70. That would take Obama to my home town of Columbus, Ohio, where, i suggest he might want to stop by the Ohio State football Buckeyes’ Open Night practice Aug. 18. (Here are scenes from last year’s practice.) And he could even, you know, put on jersey and throw a ball or something. 

In Ohio, that’s symbolism to top all. It is a swing state, remember, for everything but football.


* It’s important to note for this and for future posts that I, seriously, do not have a dog in this fight. Not only don’t I, I’m not allowed to. Unlike Cohen and Cost, I’m not here to render verdicts on candidates–or anything else for that matter. See my IAQs for more. 





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