Saturday, October 21, 2006

Barack Obubble (The Hidden Modo)

So the question before us is, should Barack Obama stop lounging around in fashion magazines and do some honest work, like running for president?

So begins Maureen Dowd's Saturday column, Obama’s Project Runway (fully available to Times Select subscribers), which continues the recent onslaught of Obama speculation that's been fueled by the start of the promotional tour hyping his new book -- The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

How will we ever persuade him to give up his modeling gigs in Men’s Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair and Washington Life? How can we lure the lanky young senator from Illinois out of the glossy celebrity pages and back to gritty substance, away from Annie Leibovitz’s camera and back to Abraham Lincoln’s tradition? He may not want to come back, now that he has mastered that J.F.K. casual glamour pose in shirt sleeves and tie, suit jacket slung over his shoulder, elegant wife and pretty children accessorizing.

The Washington Post’s fashion reporter, Robin Givhan, analyzed the Men’s Vogue spread, with its “touch football” aura: “Obama is pictured in warm light or soft focus. He is pondering, nurturing, working. But never glad-handing, pontificating or fund-raising. The pictures celebrate the idea of Obama rather than the reality of politics.”


Mr. Obama’s main accomplishment so far is sending a chill through Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ dreaded eventuality. It must certainly be more fun cavorting on a cover with Eva Longoria than caucusing in the Capitol with Harry Reid. Working on legislation can be so tedious, compared with a 13-city book tour in which you are feted as the liberal hunk of the 21st century, generating buzz about your future instead of the country’s.


Haven’t we seen this tease before? Before the 1996 campaign, Colin Powell scared the bejesus out of Hillary’s husband by showing a fair amount of leg on his book tour. He sold 2.6 million books and was hugely popular, but caution crimped him. He never ran for president, and when he went to the State Department he never stood up to the forces of darkness.

Senator Obama’s caution, too, may cause him to miss the moment. Like Alma Powell, Michelle Obama is afraid for her husband to run.

After 16 years of polarizing presidents driving them crazy, Americans will be yearning for someone as soothing as Obama. (“No one is exempt,” he writes in one of many platitudes in his new book, “from the call to find common ground.”) He is so hot now that tickets to his political events are being sought, at scalpers’ prices, on Craig’s List.

His appeal combines the political ability — alien to the Bush administration — to see something from your opponent’s point of view with the cool detachment of a J.F.K. He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and “maybe a little blow” as a young man.

He has been told by Democratic leaders to think about whether he really wants to be president, or whether he’s just getting swept away by people who want him to do it. (That’s a distinction that entitled and unqualified Republican WASPs like W. and Dan Quayle never bother to make, simply learning — or not learning — on the job.)

Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history — or is there no longer any difference?

Speaking of the ticket frenzy, Obama's appearance in Seattle had to be moved to the larger Benaroya Hall from Town Hall, and tickets were snapped up in minutes. And speaking to the media frenzy over Obama, here's Ben Adler at The American Prospect's Tapped blog:
I think Malcolm Gladwell's next book should explain the phenomenon of political speculation bubbles. Iit happens every couple months: a spectrum of the major middle- to high-brow magazines and newspapers run major features on the same topic all at once.
And now it's time for the Barack Obubble. Everyone is using the release of his new book (much to his shock and dismay, I'm sure) as an excuse to play the "Is he running? Should he run?" game. In the cover story in Time, Joe Klein does his meaningless characterological shtick, while pundits across the ideological spectrum, from David Brooks to The Nation's Sam Graham-Felsen laud the potential of an Obama presidential campaign. And something tells me this is only the beginning.

Not to throw cold water on this flame of hope, but the Obama obsession strikes me as a classic media sensation. One awesome convention speech, and all of a sudden he's the next JFK, when he realistically might be more like the next Mario Cuomo. As Ezra points out, all this talk about Obama as a leader seems to miss the point that he hasn't actually led a fight on any major issue. This doesn't mean that Obama shouldn't run or that the Democrats wouldn't be shrewd to nominate him. If a conservative like David Brooks thinks highly of Obama as a leader/thinker and would consider voting for him, it suggests he may be the only Dem with the crossover appeal of John McCain. But even that, in itself, is a product of the media bubble.


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