The Real Obama

By Joe Campbell
November 7th, 2007

There have been a few profiles in the past few days of Senator Obama, timed perhaps to coincide with the beginning of the sprint for the Democratic nomination.  I already posted some excerpts from Andrew Sullivan’s excellent piece and the candidate himself seems to have picked up on the meme himself.  The theme of Sullivan’s piece was that no other candidate had the promise or the potential of Obama and that Obama and Obama alone could truly respond to this unique moment in American history, both culturally within our country and as our representative abroad.  James Traub has a piece that is somewhat more critical in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend.  Traub reports that Obama is supported by most of the Democratic foreign policy elite, aside from a few of President Clinton’s top aides, who support Hillary.  However, among many voters, Traub sees the problem as this:

Democratic voters seem to be torn between the hope of reshaping a frightening world and the fear of being terribly vulnerable to that world.

Traub concludes:

Obama concedes that he has a problem. “We have not fully made our case yet,” he admits. “I think the American people know in their gut that we need significant change, and I think they’d like to believe what I’m saying is possible.” But they need, says this former law-school professor, “a permission structure.” They need to know that they’ll be safe with Barack Obama. Or unsafe with Hillary Clinton.

Two months before the presidential primaries begin, it still looks like a hard sell.

From the Weekly Standard, Dean Barnett reaches a similar conclusion while analyzing Barack Obama’s charisma and personal appeal.  He explains how he researched Obama’s past trying to find some dirt from his years at Harvard Law, but that oddly enough he could not find anyone who disliked Obama.  Barnett finds this extraordinary – for a top student at a top school who won every honor and excelled, graduating magna cum laude would not have aroused significant jealousies and other petty remembrances.

The results surprised me. Regardless of his classmates’ politics, they all said pretty much the same thing. They adored him. The only thing that varied was the intensity with which they adored him. Some spoke like they were eager to bear his children. And those were the guys. Others merely professed a profound fondness and respect for their former classmate…

The people that Obama so thoroughly charmed generally weren’t the charm-prone types. I say the following as a well known Republican partisan–the fact that his classmates so universally held him in the highest regard suggests that Barack Obama may truly be a special person.

Working for the Weekly Standard however, Barnett is forced to conclude:

There’s still time for the man that I’ve heard is the real Obama to emerge. If he does, he’ll be formidable. But time is growing short.

Both Barnett and Traub reach similar conclusions: they both believe that Obama has greater potential than any of the other Democratic candidates; that he is “special”, and extremely intelligent; and that he’s not quite ready.

You might recall I concluded the same thing after hearing him speak at Washington Square Park this September:

What he is missing is something that everyone around him can sense–his audiences, his aides, himself. Perhaps it is a certain resolve to take on the responsibility; perhaps it is a sense of certainty that he will be able to perform the job. What is missing is both obvious and amorphous.

He is missing just this thing. He is not yet ready. But come January, I believe and hope he will be.