I’m in trouble again. The proximate cause is not acceptance that Barack Obama is as good as we’re going to get as president given our fouled up election system, but that I’m not enthusiastic about it. As a fellow journalist put it, “You haven’t taken the Kool Aid.” I’m in trouble not for being politically incorrect, but for being politically unimpressed.
The causes for this emotional vacuity are several fold.
For one thing, I’ve lived in DC most of my life, a town which has been run by blacks for 40 years, which has had a black woman mayor and a black woman chair of the city council, where, for a while, women were in the majority on the council and where only one white has been elected to one of the two top positions in the over 30 years of home rule. The last time I can recall ethnicity or sex being raised as a serious concern was in the mid-90s when a black male cab driver told me he would have a hard time voting for Sharon Pratt Kelly, soon elected mayor, because she was a woman. I remember thinking, wow, that’s strange. If this is the politics you know, the whole Clinton-Obama debate sounds, well, so 1970s. And the white media commenting on it sounds like a bunch of nuns discussing sex.
So it may not seem hopelessly weird for me to admit that when I see Obama my first image is not that of a black man, but of a Harvard Law School graduate. If I had to choose one stereotype that would be it, which is to say an intelligent, analytical, somewhat self-possessed and arrogant fellow of innate caution and limited imagination. The sort of person you’d want around to handle your divorce or complete your merger, but far from the prophet whose role he has been assigned.
If you examine his politics even slightly, you would be hard to find one example of Obama saying or doing anything much out of the ordinary. You will, however, find many things with which progressives would have cause to disagree: his lousy healthcare plan, his support of the Iraq war after 2002, his approval of Bill Clinton’s assault on social welfare, his uninspiring record on environmental issues, his support of the war on drugs, Real ID, the PATRIOT ACT, the death penalty and No Child Left Behind.
Does this matter, and it is cause for something less than applause? I think so.
Then there are his words. The embarrassing truth is that Obama bores me. I find him platitudinous, single toned, , sometime pompous and often guilty of that classic Washington sin described once as confusing somberness with seriousness. To be sure, I don’t like listening to most politicians these days, but there is something so predictable and annoyingly didactic about Obama, as though he was trying to bring a bunch of freshman students up to speed, that I tend to turn him off and read the text instead.
I have a suspicion that my reaction may be one reason why Obama has a hard time reaching less than elite whites. It’s not that he can’t reach across the ethnic divide; it’s the class divide that keeps him apart. He talks like someone who considers himself better than his audience.
Oddly, Obama gave a not bad description of himself when he was dissin’ Ralph Nader: “My sense is that Mr. Nader is somebody who, if you don’t listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you’re not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work.”
If you compare Ralph Nader’s own work with that of a man who was a mere state senator four years ago, you might find some excuse for the former’s high opinion of himself yet be left confused by the latter’s assumption that he has already paid enough dues to be president.
It is also striking that Ralph Nader and Paul Wellstone, whom Obama described as a “gadfly,” come off worse than a couple of rightwing senators Obama wants to stuff in his cabinetor even his beloved former minister who has caused him such grief. And that his constitutional law advisor says he would be ‘stunned’ if Obama named anti-business Supreme Court justices.
Which raises the useful question: just how liberal will Obama be as president? His enthralled throng hasn’t even stopped clapping long enough to ask the question.
Finally, my workleads me into a frustrating dichotomy. At some points of the day I concern myself with the often trivial distinctions we make between candidates. But then, moments later, I find myself facing news that glaciers are in their worst shape in 5,000 years, that the Iraq War may cost $1 trillion, that Bush has assaulted the Constitution again, and that the financial markets are in their worst shape in decades. And none of the candidates who stand a chance of being elected – McCain, Clinton or Obama – have anything useful or meaningful to say on such topics.
And I am reminded once again why I can’t bring myself to cheer.