Obama on the Rise

All love stories are beautiful at the beginning, and what we're witnessing now is the beginning of a new one: America and Barack Obama. The story begins with the world spinning off its axis, the country mired in dark times and the way of the fresh-faced savior seemingly blocked by a juggernaut agent of the Status Quo. Only in the end, in the moment that sportswriters die for and that comes once a generation in politics if we're lucky, the phenom rises to the occasion, gets the big hit in the big game and becomes a man before our very eyes. The old power recedes, and the new era is born.

That's grand language for a forum as vulgar and profane as presidential politics, but this is the moment that Barack Hussein Obama was born for, and it really is happening before our very eyes. Like Kennedy or Reagan or even Bill Clinton, Obama is a politician whose best chance for success has always been on the level of myth and hero worship; to win the Democratic nomination, he must successfully sell himself not just as a candidate but as an icon, a symbol of the best possible future for twenty-first-century multicultural America and an antidote to both the callous reactionary idiocy of the Bush administration and the shrewd but soulless corporatism of the Clinton machine.

With just weeks to go before Iowa, Obama is succeeding at that sales job, thanks in part to an unexpected avalanche of positive press and in even greater part to Hillary Clinton's recent performance as a creaky, suddenly vulnerable establishment villain. In just a few weeks, the first real votes in this insufferably long process will finally be cast, and when they are, the Powers That Be may find that they waited too long to get the real show started -- that the long wait gave America just enough time to decide that it's ready to move on to something new.

For most of this campaign season, I doubted that Obama really was that new something. Now I'm not so sure he isn't. Whoever Barack Obama is, there's no doubting the genuineness of his phenomenon. And maybe, who knows, that's all that matters.

After debacles in Iraq and New Orleans and mushrooming scandals that exposed much of Congress and the Cabinet as a low-rent crime family hired to collect protection money for the likes of Halliburton and Pfizer, people simply do not trust the politicians they vote for to be anything less than an embarrassment. You get the sense they approach the upcoming election with the enthusiasm of a two-time loser offered a selection of plea deals.

People hate the mechanized speeches, they hate the negative ads, and they especially hate venomous news creatures, myself included. It's now so bad that a poll last month found that fifty-six percent of all likely voters agreed with the phrase that the presidential race is "annoying and a waste of time" -- a shocking number, given that it excludes the forty to fifty percent of Americans who already don't vote in presidential races.

People don't want to feel this way, but the attitude everywhere is the same: What choice do these assholes give us? And it's that grim prejudice that has pervaded this process for a generation, forcing the public to choose from an endless succession of lesser evils and second- raters of the Kerry-Dole genus, stuffed suits who offered nothing like a solution to the main problem of feeling like shit about the American civic experiment.

Until now. Emphasizing that this is not necessarily a reflection of who or what Obama really is, he unmistakably and strikingly attracts crowds that, to a person, really seem to believe that his election will fundamentally change the way they feel about their country.

"I just want to see if there's going to be a difference with this cat," says Richard Walters, a forty-three-year-old New Yorker, who had come to hear Obama give a speech at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. "Because if there's something different, we need it -- now."

"At this point, I'd be glad if he recited the alphabet correctly," says Xiomara Hall, another New Yorker. Laughing, she and her friend add, "We got hope. Change is goood!"

"I just want to see if he can do something, anything, to change things," says Shirley Paulino, another visitor to the Apollo event. "See if he is what he says he is. We just -- we need it, you know?"

Normally the sight of prospective voters muttering platitudes about "hope" and "change" would make any reporter erupt with derisive laughter, but at Obama events one hears outbursts of optimism so desperate and artless that I can't help but check my cynical instinct. Grown men and women look up at you with puppy-dog eyes and all but beg you not to shit on their dreams. It's odd to say, but it's actually moving.

An important component of this phenomenon is that the Obama crowds are surprisingly free of the usual anti-Republican venom. As much as anything, his rise is a reflection of the country's increasing boredom with partisan hatred.

"I'm so tired of the president just talking to one part of the country, or one group," says Malia Scotch-Marmo. "I was in my twenties with Reagan, but I felt he talked to me, even though we were all Democrats. It would be great to have a black president. It would be great for kids to see. It would be a nice mind shift."

It's a mood thing, not an issue thing, and it stems entirely from Obama's unique personal qualities: his expansive eloquence, his remarkable biography, his commanding physical presence. I saw this clearly on display at an event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was a foreign-policy discussion arranged by his campaign that I thought was going to be a disaster. The candidate's handlers had announced a start time of 8:30 a.m., but when dozens of reporters and a hundred or so audience members arrived, we learned that the candidate wouldn't be showing up until eleven. Up to then, the room had to listen to a panel of academic corpses blather about the Middle East.

By 10 a.m., the press section was afire with sarcastic ripostes. "I slept in the car," said one hack. "I had to. I already checked out of my hotel in Manchester."

But once Obama showed up, the sarcasm evaporated. There was nothing remarkable about Obama's speech and subsequent Q&A session, except that he delivered every line with the force and confidence of someone who's already been president for years. Obama's shtick is to sell his future presidency as one that would recast America as the good guy of the world, one that would be guided by the principles of basic decency ("This isn't just about drawing contrasts. It's about doing what's right"), openness ("Not talking [to other countries] doesn't make us look tough. It makes us look arrogant") and a vision that embraces the challenges of this century ("The task of the next president is to convince the American people that global interdependence is here to stay. Global trade is not going away. The Internet is not going away"). His presentation is deliberately vague on most counts, but the overall effect is augmented by his emphasis on easily remembered concrete positions -- like his promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within sixteen months.

But mostly, Obama is selling himself. When he talks about "showing a new face to the world," it's not exactly a mystery that he's talking about his face. In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy shitbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.

Moreover, he completely lacks that air of grasping, gutter-scraping ambition sickness that follows most presidential hopefuls around like a rain cloud -- the vengeful impatience that hovers over Rudy Giuliani, or that creepy greediness for media attention that strikes one like an oar in the face in the presence of Mitt Romney. To use a sports cliché, Obama acts like he's been there before, and his handlers are aware enough of how well their candidate is wearing his climb to power that they've consciously chosen to contrast it with that of his rivals.

In particular, the Obama camp harps incessantly, without naming names, on the sense of entitlement that infects Hillary Clinton's campaign persona. Poor Hillary: While Obama glows like the chosen one, taking Kennedy-esque flight on the wings of destiny, next to him Hillary sometimes comes off like an angry drag queen, enraged that some other tramp has been allowed to "Danke Schoen" in her Las Vegas. Obama sees this and isn't above pointing at her Adam's apple. "I'm not running for president because I think this is somehow owed to me," Obama says. And people believe it. In Portsmouth, the same crowd that had to suffer through a two-and-a-half-hour wait sent Obama back on the road with a standing ovation. "There's just something about him," says one middle-aged gentleman. When I suggest that his comment was vague, he shrugs. "Yeah, but it's good vague."

Of course, underneath the veneer of fresh-faced optimism that Obama is pushing -- note that the word "idealism" isn't appropriate here, because Obama isn't selling idealism so much as a kind of reinvigorated, feel-good pragmatism -- there operates a massive, well-oiled political machine no less ruthless and ambitious than that of his establishment rival, Hillary Clinton. Obama has raised $80 million, and it would be a grievous mistake to describe his candidacy as a grass-roots affair, particularly when he counts among his bundlers many of the lobbyists and political-finance pros who buttress the Clinton run.

Even a cursory glance at Obama's money men is enough to confirm that fact. The list includes Wall Street hotshots from Lehman Brothers, Oppenheimer and Co., and Citigroup, a smattering of Hollywood players and Native American casino interests, representatives of big pharmaceuticals and the insurance sector -- in short, all the major food groups of reviled corporate influence-hunters.

Worse still, Obama's financial backing is reflected in some of his Senate votes and campaign positions, including most notably his support for expanding NAFTA to Peru, limiting the ability of injured workers and consumers to sue for damages, and pouring federal funds into E85 corn-based ethanol, an alternative fuel for which the market is dominated by the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Company. More than once I heard Obama give stirring speeches, only to mar them with plugs for ethanol.

Obama's massive war chest allows him to compete not merely in the areas of personal charisma and "hope" but in the trench warfare of local pavement-pounding staff. He boasts thirty-seven offices in Iowa, maintaining a presence in towns with populations as low as 1,400.

In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three early-primary states, Obama has trotted out endorsements from an impressive cast of local pols -- support that came under fire when it was learned that many of the politicians had received campaign contributions from Obama's cornball-titled political action committee, the "Hopefund." But here's the funny thing: When the Clinton campaign decided to take aim at Obama for "using his PAC in a manner that appears to be inconsistent with the prevailing election laws," the criticisms fell on deaf ears even among crusaders for campaign-finance reform. "Obama is being held to a higher standard," says Craig Holman of Public Citizen. "It's hard to criticize him as long as everyone else is doing it."

Indeed, it's Hillary Clinton -- who, if not for Obama, would be the story of historic change in this race, the first woman ever to make a serious run at the Oval Office -- who has been left to carry the million-pound cross of all the ugliest recent sins of the Democratic Party, dragging to Iowa her Iraq War vote, the Clinton record on NAFTA, and a list of corporate sponsors that could keep Bruce Reed and Al From hard all night long.

In what may turn out to be the final cruel irony in a career full of them, Hillary, at the climactic moment of her political life, now sees herself transformed into a symbol of the corrupt status quo. At multiple stops on the campaign trail, I've heard Obama voters say they rejected Hillary because she represents the "old-boys' network." The irony is doubly cruel because the same cozy coalition of moneyed insiders that foisted waffling yahoos like John Kerry on the party rank-and-file and urged Democrats toward cynical moves like support for the Iraq War, all in the name of "electability," now find their wagons circled around a candidate -- Hillary -- who may be the least electable of the Democratic contenders. In a stunning Zogby poll whose release coincided with Obama's recent charge to the top, a survey of prospective voters showed that Hillary would lose to all the top five Republicans in the election, while either Obama or John Edwards would defeat or tie every single one.

As for Edwards, he too lurks as a crucial character in a possible Hillary death drama, a passionate Cassius to Obama's coolly pragmatic Brutus. In town hall after town hall, in the remotest corners of states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Edwards casts Hillary as an elitist creature of political privilege bought off by lobbyists and indistinguishable from George Bush, charging audiences not to "trade corporate Republicans for corporate Democrats." Edwards delivers this argument with a healthy and convincing dose of class resentment -- he is flawlessly playing the part of the small-town favorite son returned from the big city full of devastating tales of aristocratic treachery. He leaves behind crowds that are jazzed and angry and suddenly wanting no part of the Hillary-Evrémondes in charge of "their" party. But while Edwards is running the more revolutionary campaign, it's Obama (whose "differentness" is more visible on TV) who's getting traction as the candidate of "change."

All of which adds to the whiff of destiny that lately seems to surround Obama. At the outset of the campaign season, he was treated as a not-ready-for-prime-time sideshow, with media pundits all in one voice bitching about his "rookie mistakes" and "lack of aggressiveness." But now that he's got the numbers and the momentum, even the most hardened political cynic has to ask -- why not this guy? Would it be such a terrible thing for America to show that it's big enough to elect a black president? Wouldn't that be something all by itself? The very fact that the public, mostly on its own, has lifted Obama past an arrogant establishment consensus adds to his appeal as a symbol of the idea that not everything in our politics is rigged, that not everything that they tell us is impossible really is.

So maybe it's OK to let the grandiose things that an Obama presidency could represent overwhelm the less-stirring reality -- i.e., Obama as more or less a typical middle-of-the-road Democrat with a lot of money and a well-run campaign. Maybe it's OK because it's not always about the candidates; sometimes it's about us, what we want and what we want to believe. And if Barack Obama can carry that burden for us, why not let him? Seriously, why not? The happy ending doesn't always have to ring false.

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