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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I fully support Barack Obama, but I do not love him.

Barack Obama excites passions, that is to be sure. My problem has always been that I've never felt anything for him that I haven't felt for any other politician — curiosity, skepticism, and a reasonable level of hope.

Four years ago, when Barack Obama was running for the US Senate from his self-gerrymandered Hyde Park/Gold Coast state Senate district, I was floored not by the amount, but intensity, of the support he was receiving from Democratic Party activists, bloggers and the media. In retrospect, I know why I supported Hull over Obama initially: first, I had met Hull, and although he was a terrible politician, he was an unbelievably kind and sincere guy. Second, he had made pretty strong efforts to reach out to the Assyrian community. And third, he was a guy who would never need to worry about raising money, which is the critical problem with our democracy. But I wasn't in love with the guy; rather, my natural skepticism pushed me further away from then-state Senator Obama towards the millionaire candidate I felt more comfortable with. It's my contrary nature; I can't help it. It was without a doubt a bum decision, but I have never gone back on my sense that the swooning passion for Senator Obama was misplaced; reasoned support and visceral adoration are very different things, and visceral adoration can never be justified, particularly in a secular democracy.

The response I got at the time was so immense — literally hundreds of angry, accusatory e-mails every week, accusations of libel and racism — that I decided to never write about the guy again, and I avoided it until I started posting some pieces on my personal site and at Daily Kos (you can read these here ). The passions around that primary and the subsequent media honeymoon with Senator Obama freaked me out; I couldn't understand why I didn't feel what everybody else clearly felt, that this state senator from a largely well-off district and with an admittedly light resume, was the second coming — of Lincoln, of Kennedy, of the Founding Fathers, of Gandhi. I didn't feel "electrified" by his speeches or the video, I felt like I do whenever I see things politicians do: skeptical.

Intellectual honesty was also less important to me at a time when my interest in politics was sharpened by participation in it. On a basic level the analyses of electoral politics were focused on narrative rather than evidence. So that hampered the effort to encourage others to have some clarity. Where I was wrong in 2004 was not in my choice of candidate (an opinion in that sense can't really be wrong, only stupid, as mine was) but rather in my analysis of Senator Obama's gravitas. It was exactly because he was so smart and, in person, thoughtful, that I didn't anticipate his meteoric rise. This is not a criticism of him (it is a criticism of me, for one thing) but more so a criticism of the nature of the political process. In February of this year, I wrote:

"Senator Obama is a really, really smart guy. Really smart. I've always felt, particularly after meeting him on several occasions in Springfield, that his basic thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty would be a political liability. When asked a question, he seems to generally want to answer it correctly, which makes him stop and think. This is a good quality, but one that does not translate well to media-compressed forums like village halls and debates. It is his great intelligence, though, that also gives those of us concerned about his vision of his presidency hope, to use a now-deflated word."

It would be cheating to say this was my only criticism of Senator Obama; to the contrary, I had a number of criticisms. The biggest one was that it was clear to me that this guy was just a slick politician who was very good at what he did. And his most rabid support was coming from activists and political professionals who have a tendency to fall in love with secular messiahs like Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.

Senator Obama has not "proven" to be a great politician; he always was one, and I'm not interested in offering some kind of apologia for not predicting he would be president in four years. This is politics, not chemistry, and the interaction of elements are rarely predicted with any meaningful specificity. Suffice it to say I picked the wrong horse; in any case, the metric would be whether or not Senator Obama has been a great senator, and since he has been running for president for nearly half of his unfinished term, I don't think there is enough evidence to judge whether he has been a great senator. That he is an inspiring and unique political figure with immense potential is without question.

Since this is a political column, my failure to see that potential shouldn't be ignored or excused. But neither should the fact that that potential has not yet been realized. What issue most defines Senator Obama to you? Can you think of a single concrete issue? Yet, this was a criticism of another presidential hopeful:

"The candidate showed a great capacity for absorbing attractive ideas and a knack for avoiding political pitfalls. He patiently explained to his academic collaborators that a political campaign was a fight for office, not a program for adult education. Once elected, he could try to enlighten the public, but as a candidate, he 'had to accept people's prejudices and turn them to good use.'

"To deflect Republican efforts to paint him as a radical, [the candidate] shifted to the center in October, toning down the rhetoric of change and stressing such traditional Democratic doctrines of balanced budgets and restraint on government spending. Some of his advisers began to worry that he would not be radical enough to meet the national crisis."

Sound familiar? It gets eerier:

"When Roosevelt spoke to a vast throng at the Hollywood Bowl, he praised the city's sunny weather and otherwise "skated safely over all other recognized issues," noted the Los Angeles Time's conservative political reporter Kyle Palmer. The young liberal journalist Carey McWilliams felt equally disappointed with the candidate's vague abstractions that day. These were tactics that Roosevelt employed through the campaign, skipping over local disputes and picking and choosing his themes from the conflicting input he was receiving from the planners, the trustbusters, the budget balancers, and the protective tariff and free trade advocates. He would try different approaches before different audiences."

That's Franklin Roosevelt they're talking about. This is definitely a positive sign for Democrats. Obama, like Roosevelt, has shown a devastating talent as a political operator. But, unlike Roosevelt, he hasn't landed yet. He keeps campaigning. What I was too clumsy to point out then was that being a really good politician is not really worth anything unless you know what that translates to as governance — and I simply couldn't understand why people were so darned certain that being a really good politician would mean being a really good statesman.

The analogy to FDR's political acumen does not translate to an analogy to FDR's governmental or even long-term political domination. It points to a potential for that, sure. But potential and evidence are very different. It is the difference between faith and science. The mistake I made then was interpreting this faith as something nefarious that it was my job to undermine.

Mark Brown at the Sun-Times wrote a column comparing Senator Obama to Abraham Lincoln; and not lightly, either, but in a quivering tone extolling his vision and what he stood for and all that. It's not that I didn't like Senator Obama — I did, and still do, quite a bit actually. But I just couldn't feel it. I didn't and don't "feel" anything special about him — he gave a good speech in 2004, but one I thought was pretty light on anything but sentiment. I much prefer, for example, the type of speech Jesse Jackson gave in 1988, where he discussed not only broader issues of Americanism but also specific issues of fundamental change to a system that hurts working people. Larry at Archpundit, a political observer I highly respect for his general intellectual honesty, was making comparisons to Paul Simon and Harold Washington, and generally performing some acrobatics to make sure not a single criticism of Senator Obama could stick. Everywhere, people were making these comparisons and predicting incomparable greatness — at Daily Kos, in particular, his fan base was taken to making comparisons to Thomas Jefferson, predicting an Obama Presidency where he would preside over the handing of executive power back to the legislature — a greatness to rival any in the history not only of our country, but of democratic society. And based on what?

The evidence Brown and so many bloggers and others used was to say that Lincoln, like Obama, had a thin record before he ran for the presidency, had spent time in Springfield, was a good orator, and had opposed an illegal war. This is like when creationists harp on "gaps in the fossil record" to demonstrate the existence of God as the Creator; the absence of evidence in two cases is hardly enough to prove a positive. But, I have to stress this early to avoid the enraged reaction I've gotten in the past: Saying there is no evidence to compare Obama to Lincoln, or to predict similar greatness, isn't the same as saying anything negative about the guy.

I had the temerity in emails to point out what a lot of Springfield watchers at the time knew: that almost all of the legislation being showcased by the Obama campaign in late '03 had been passed since Obama had begun preparing for a Senate run and had been shepherded by Senate President Emil Jones (some allegedly taken away from other legislators). This isn't a big deal: this is what politicians do. He still passed them, didn't he? But even bringing up this since-confirmed point was evidence that I was a nefarious underminer, out to "smear" the state senator. He was so important, that to criticize him, or even ask questions about him, was like trying to smother a baby to death.

To my chagrin, my writing on the subject got picked up by something called the "Obama Truth Squad," who did not respond to an email requesting my writing be removed from their site. This would become an ongoing stress for me; trying to get people to calm down about this state senator-cum-messiah would be equated with hating him, wanting to smear him, being a secret Republican operative, or whatever. When in reality, the facts simply did not support the adulation. This doesn't mean that people shouldn't support him, or even love him. Hell, I've given him lots of money, made phone calls for him, compared his potential to FDR's and otherwise defending him against the somewhat unbalanced attacks from his primary opponents. But seeing potential in a politician is not the same as "having faith" in them. We the public should never "have faith" in our political leaders. Faith-based politics has gotten us in too much trouble in the past.

My sense of Senator Obama at the time was not that he wasn't worthy to be a US senator, but that he didn't deserve the adoration he was getting. Besides passing some solid but by no means groundbreaking legislation, and making very moving speeches, what evidence was there that Obama would be a fearless progressive voice? What evidence was there that he would never bow to special interests? He had never been put to those tests; that doesn't mean he wouldn't meet the challenges if he faced them. But he hadn't really been tested in the past, so the adoration he was getting was not based on evidence but on faith. I was withholding judgment on his deity; others were simply choosing to teleologically suspend that judgment and come to Obama.

He was, and is, a very good politician. But he was, and is, a politician. In a Chicago Reader feature in which I was quoted, he was described as a "young man in a hurry," and I think this was and is a suitable description. Of his 13 years in elected office, solidly six have been spent campaigning for higher office. He does not "transcend" politics. He never stuck his neck out on an issue that could get him in trouble. The speech he has been so heralded for in 2002 was given after a sitting senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, gave a speech against the war on the floor of the Senate — Durbin would also vote against the war resolution. So clearly, opposing the war in Illinois was not political suicide. He also shared that stage with a fellow elected official in the state House, Julie Hamos. Senator Obama was wise and brave to oppose the war, but this was not Lincoln facing down Polk over the Mexican-American War, a stand that helped cost him his congressional seat. And that Senator Obama's supporters were given to rationalizing everything he did, when they likely would not have excused similar behavior from someone else, should be troubling to anybody, Democrat, Republican or Independent.

All of this doesn't mean he's bad or good. It just means he's a practical politician. That's not a bad thing; it can be a good thing, in fact. Practical politicians can get things done. But it does mean, at the end, he is a politician. Not a transcendent savior, not somebody with some moral standing that is deserving of adulatory accolades. Coming from liberals whose worldview is generally negative — that those who have power are generally not to be trusted — this seemed like the height of hypocrisy, and maybe a kind of madness.

It's not a matter of "not trusting" him; it's a matter of doing our civic duty and being vigilantly skeptical of anybody who is gunning for great power. It's a matter of not suspending your skepticism because it just feels so good to believe. Skepticism is easy when it's your enemy; skepticism against your own guys is when it counts, and many on the left, particularly liberals, are very eager to sit on their skepticism when it feels better to just believe, and only employ it when it impugns the opposition. This may be good for winning elections, but it does nothing to move our country forward, and it particularly does nothing to build a movement on the left. And what's worse, it is just enabling behavior. Much of the worst things done by the Bush administration were done in miniature by the Clinton administration, and that fact was used as justification over and over again — and the leadership of the Democratic Party were left with no moral high ground from which to attack.

You'll note that none of this is a criticism of Senator Obama himself, but rather on the nature of his support. My mistake then was conflating the two; getting angry at the childlike faith-based support and projecting that anger (and contrarian-ness) onto the man himself. Four years on, the political process, and the sycophants on the left, still appear silly, and when the realities of governing a nation when campaigning from the center kick in, they will realize their silliness, and that painful realization will be their own reward.

There is a real risk, which I've written about, that the activist and professional political class that has fallen so passionately in love with Obama will enable bad behavior. I am not predicting bad behavior — but this is American politics, and as I don't hear any real fundamental changes to the system being proposed, a lapse into bad behavior is certainly a possibility. The right made a critical mistake in their adoration of George W. Bush; by excusing all of his behavior, and by beginning to actually believe their own "narratives," they ended up undermining their own movement and party; and look, eight years later and movement conservatism has ground to a halt and the national Republican Party, not to mention many of its state affiliates, are in a shambles. Intellectual dishonesty and blind partisanship can serve tactical purposes but as a strategy they will always fail, because material reality has a way of busting up narratives.

Senator Obama's star power is an asset in that he can move people to trust him; but the magic it has worked on much of the left could end up smothering internal dissent. Power doesn't need to be protected by the people; power has power. Power needs to be always challenged by the people. Deference to charismatic leaders, and implicit support of them based on a "belief" or "faith" that they will eventually do right, has been the tinder of too many unfortunate conflagrations.

Looking back, four years on, Senator Obama's meteoric rise is something that will certainly be studied by considerably smarter people than me. I don't regret not predicting it; nor do I regret not picking the winner. What I do regret is participating in the play-pretend that is narrative politics, which will always lead to embarrassing, indefensible conclusions.

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Jason / August 21, 2008 10:18 AM

Pretty well thought out article. One small point... your frequent explanations and then clarifications seem to paint you as someone afraid of being called Judas by your own.

Ramsin / August 21, 2008 11:20 AM

I hear you. I have to admit on some trigger shyness after the fury I've met on the issue.

W / August 22, 2008 12:58 PM

Thou shalt not criticize Barack Obama, most especially if you live and work in Chicago.

God shall smite thee.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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