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The Phenomenon

The word “phenomenon”—from the Greek word phainesthai, “to appear,” and related to another Greek word that is the root of the English word “fantasy”—possesses a unique potency in our culture. While scientists may use it to mean anything observable, it is popularly applied to rock stars, movie stars, top athletes, and the like. Even today, in our hype-drenched society, it is not used promiscuously. It is reserved for that special minority of people who seem to have singular talent and potential; for those with the ability, that is, to fulfill our collective fantasies.

Politics, the domain of middling time-servers and the more talented few who spend years or even decades working their way methodically up the ladder, doesn’t see many phenomenons. But it certainly encountered one in late July 2004, when Barack Obama—still, then, a state senator from Illinois—gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The convention delegates and convention-goers and the television audience (smaller than usual—the networks decided not to broadcast live convention coverage the night of Obama’s speech, so he was watched only by the cable audience1 ) saw, in his delivery, a confident and eloquent and handsome young man, then just a week shy of his forty-third birthday. And they heard something most unusual, particularly during a bitter presidential election year—a plea to rise above the red–blue divide that was rooted in fundamental civic principles not often invoked these days by politicians of either party:

…Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people…. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: “E pluribus unum”; out of many, one…. There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice our country into red states and blue states…. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

Immediately, Obama was hailed as a possible savior, and the speech as possibly the greatest convention speech by a relatively unknown politician since Hubert Humphrey’s rousing plea for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention. A candidate for the United States Senate at the time, Obama had the good fortune to be running against Alan Keyes, a hard-right, crackpot conservative from Maryland—also black, which is the main reason the Illinois Republican Party recruited him to face Obama—who had no chance of winning. Obama’s election to the Senate that November, when he took 70 percent of the vote to Keyes’s 27 percent, led to instant speculation about his someday seeking the presidency. A phenomenon was born.

What is at the heart of his appeal? His name, memorable and euphonious, helps. So do his looks—his eyes and face project ease and warmth and sincerity; nothing about them is hard or inscrutable. He comes across, to both African-Americans and whites, as someone who simultaneously epitomizes black advancement and transcends race. But the main reason for his success surely has to do with the central theme of his rhetoric. In the convention speech, as in all his major speeches, Obama aimed far higher than the usual uninspiring Democratic laundry list of health care, good jobs, devotion to Roe v. Wade, and the rest. His subject is our shared civic culture, which he sees as under threat—mostly from the right but also from the left. He believes our red-versus-blue politics of today is positively toxic, and he thinks that our only hope is to rise above it. The theme of The Audacity of Hope is not how the Democrats can win more elections, or how a certain liberal policy goal can be attained; it is, he writes in the book’s early pages, “how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life.” He wants a political culture that is, to be sure, liberal in its outlook but does the difficult work of trying to speak to people who don’t share liberalism’s assumptions (without being accommodationist to conservatives in power; Obama is no Joe Lieberman).

He has set, then, a large task for himself (in the book, and in life). And clearly, he thinks he’s the man to bring about such changes. Much of his confidence grows out of his experience and upbringing, which give him a unique (to put it mildly) outlook on American society. He is the son of a Harvard-trained Kenyan economist and a white mother from Kansas, and he was raised in Hawaii mostly by his white maternal grandparents. His father returned to Kenya when he was two years old, and his parents divorced; he lived for a time with his mother, moving to Indonesia with her for five formative years, from age six to ten, when she married an Indonesian man. He returned to Hawaii with his mother, and now a little sister, and they lived together for three years as his mother pursued her master’s degree. But when she returned to Indonesia to do her fieldwork, young “Barry,” as he was often called then, chose to stay behind with his grandparents. He attended a private high school and, though his grandparents were far from rich, he had a life of relative comfort.

Still, although Hawaii was not Mississippi, he was a black person in America. His emotional wrestling match with his background is the subject of his first book, the 1995 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Because Obama wrote that book before he entered politics, it is an unusually frank document for someone in his current position—a sometimes searingly blunt account of his feelings during his earlier years. Surely few senators in American history have committed to the page words like these:

At best, these things [manifestations of blackness] were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.2

The succeeding years would soften his perspective. He went off to college (two years at Occidental, then two more at Columbia). In 1985, he moved from New York to Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer on the South Side. Much of Dreams from My Father is devoted to an affecting chronicle of these years of trying to improve the living conditions in housing projects and to start youth programs. (“The Audacity of Hope,” it turns out, was the name of a sermon Obama heard a reverend deliver on a Sunday morning shortly after the death of Harold Washington, the black mayor of Chicago, and after Obama had decided to leave his job to attend Harvard Law School.)

At Harvard, he was elected president of the Law Review. He returned to Chicago, opened a small law practice, and met his wife, Michelle, also a Harvard Law graduate and a down-to-earth South Sider who considers her husband “something of a dreamer” (they now have two young daughters). He was elected to the Illinois State Senate, representing the Hyde Park neighborhood in which he lived, in 1996. He passed numerous bills and won the trust of his Republican colleagues. Four years after an ill-advised congressional run in 2000, when he lost a primary to the incumbent, Bobby Rush, he sought the Senate seat once held by the moderate Republican Everett Dirksen. He started out as an also-ran in a seven-person field, but his magnetism—and a lucky break in the form of allegations of spousal abuse against a rich opponent—led him to a smashing primary victory. Another lucky break in the general election—his heavily favored GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew after his salacious divorce papers were leaked about a month before that famous keynote address—handed him Keyes as his opponent.

For all the fury in the passage quoted above from his first book, it must be said that Obama was not that person most of the time. Both of his books suggest a man who has been engaged in an intellectual and spiritual quest. In a particularly telling chapter of Dreams from My Father he discusses his troubled reactions upon learning from a Kenyan half-sister that his father, once a high government functionary in Kenya, had been punished by Jomo Kenyatta for speaking too freely and ended in poverty. He decided early in life that he would not let race limit him. Having lived in the white man’s world not only at his private high school and Columbia and Harvard but at home, Obama learned to look beyond race perhaps as much as a black man can in America.

This sensibility informs his politics, and he leaves no doubt of his debt to American civic culture—the great universities he attended, the political process that he encountered as an organizer, frustrating as it was; all the ways by which citizens can grow to become a part of something larger than themselves. He makes plain his belief that such a culture is something to cherish and foster so that it will be more inclusive. That is what he talks about in his best speeches. In a political climate in which very few Democrats have had anything genuinely interesting to say for a very long time, this is what makes him, deservedly, a star.

The Audacity of Hope hews closely to formula. Each of its nine chapters—on broad, thematic subjects like politics, opportunity, faith, race, and family—begins with an anecdote that suggests the point he wants to make about the subject, then moves on to his ruminations about it, and ends with another anecdote meant to drive the point home. These can tend toward the homiletic (the chapter on faith ends with the sentence “I know that tucking in my daughters that night, I grasped a little bit of heaven”).

Most unusually for an American politician, though, he has a sense of historical irony—and is willing to articulate it. After being sworn in to the Senate he listens to a stirring speech of welcome by Senator Robert Byrd, who warns of the “dangerous encroachment, year after year, of the Executive Branch on the Senate’s precious independence.”

Listening to Senator Byrd,” he reflects,

I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan, an association that he had long disavowed, an error he attributed—no doubt correctly—to the time and place in which he’d been raised, but which continued to surface as an issue throughout his career. I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation. I wondered if this would matter to the liberals who now lionized Senator Byrd for his principled opposition to the Iraq War resolution—the MoveOn.org crowd, the heirs of the political counterculture the senator had spent much of his career disdaining.

I wondered if it should matter. Senator Byrd’s life—like most of ours—has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, whose rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America’s founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate’s role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of noninterference with their peculiar institution. Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique in its genius—yet blind to the whip and the chain.

The reader will not find in The Audacity of Hope boldly innovative policy prescriptions that will lead the Democrats out of their wilderness. At some points Obama sounds indignant, as when he writes, “At a time when average workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America’s CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, handpicked corporate boards will allow.” But the book’s most interesting aspect is the author’s deep ambivalence about contemporary American politics. The chapters boil down to a pattern: here’s what the right believes about subject X, and here’s what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away. In the chapter on Republicans and Democrats, for example, Obama confesses his “curious relationship” to the 1960s, and acknowledges that “as disturbed as I might have been by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980…I understood his appeal.”

It was the same appeal that the military bases back in Hawaii had always held for me as a young boy, with their tidy streets and well-oiled machinery, the crisp uniforms and crisper salutes.

He admits that “there are those within the Democratic Party who tend toward [a] zealotry” similar to that of the Republicans, and he observes of both sides: “It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off politics.” It’s easy, he writes,

to get most liberals riled up about government encroachments on freedom of the press or a woman’s reproductive freedoms. But if you have a conversation with these same liberals about the potential costs of regulation to a small-business owner, you will often draw a blank stare.

In the chapter titled “The World Beyond Our Borders,” we have this, combining caution about threats to the US and vagueness about what they are:

The objectives favored by liberals have merit. But they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy. It’s useful to remind ourselves, then, that Osama bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh, and that the threats facing the United States today are real, multiple, and potentially devastating. Our recent policies have made matters worse, but if we pulled out of Iraq tomorrow, the United States would still be a target, given its dominant position in the existing international order. Of course, conservatives are just as misguided if they think we can simply eliminate “the evildoers” and then let the world fend for itself.

A few pages earlier he writes:

I believe it is in the interest of both Americans and Iraqis to begin a phased withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2006, although how quickly a complete withdrawal can be accomplished is a matter of imperfect judgment, based on a series of best guesses.

And in the chapter called “Our Constitution”:

As the judicial confirmation process began heating up, I had a conversation with a friend in which I admitted concern with some of the strategies we were using to discredit and block nominees. I had no doubt of the damage that some of Bush’s judicial nominees might do; I would support the filibuster of some of these judges, if only to signal to the White House the need to moderate its next selections. But elections ultimately meant something, I told my friend. Instead of relying on Senate procedures, there was one way to ensure that judges on the bench reflected our values, and that was to win at the polls.

In his “Politics” chapter, Obama writes with a considerable amount of candor (for a sitting senator) about his Senate campaign and the things one has to endure to become, and be, a senator. He can poke fun at himself and see his own shortcomings. But these passages, too, are chiefly about his deep frustration with how politics works today. He didn’t like raising money,3 and he seems to dislike powerful interest groups—particularly the single-issue advocacy organizations that vet candidates, dangling their endorsements in front of them—even more. “I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘special interest’ which lumps together the pharmaceutical lobby and the parents of special-ed kids,” he writes. “I must have filled out at least fifty questionnaires” in 2004, he continues. “None of them were subtle.”

Time dictated that I fill out only those questionnaires sent by organizations that might actually endorse me…so I could usually answer “yes” to most questions without any major discomfort. But every so often I would come across a question that gave me pause. I might agree with a union on the need to enforce labor and environmental standards in our trade laws, but did I believe that NAFTA should be repealed? I might agree that universal health care should be one of the nation’s top priorities, but did it follow that a constitutional amendment was the best way to achieve that goal? I found myself hedging on such questions, writing in the margins, explaining the difficult policy choices involved. My staff would shake their heads. Get one answer wrong, they explained, and the endorsement, the workers, and the mailing list would all go to the other guy. Get them all right, I thought, and you have just locked yourself into the pattern of reflexive, partisan jousting that you have promised to help end.

There are two ways to look at this sort of temporizing. The first is to be disdainful. We are in an age, many liberals argue, that calls for political warfare. These are not the times to be acknowledging that conservatives may have a point or to pick quarrels with interest groups that, whatever their faults, are fighting the good fight.

Already in his young Senate career, Obama has disappointed some who thought they saw in him, in July 2004 in Boston, a political warrior. His voting record is generally quite liberal, almost conventionally so: his composite liberal score, according to the National Journal, is 83, meaning that his votes were more liberal on economic, social, and foreign policy issues than those of 83 percent of his colleagues.4 But for the most part, he has not been a bold advocate. Aware that his celebrity is a likely source of resentment for more senior colleagues, he has moved slowly, seeking the spotlight rarely. He stepped into it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he made his first appearance on a Sunday morning talk show—after turning down such invitations for months. His remarks to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos were mostly quite measured (“there seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people’s radar screen”). Around the same time, he offered his first major bill, which would give federal assistance to auto companies with retiree health care costs in exchange for greater fuel efficiency.

More recently, he has sought to call attention to the Darfur genocide. He visited a camp for the region’s refugees in Chad in late August of this year; his interest surely owed something to Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the Rwandan genocide A Problem from Hell, who took a year’s leave from her post at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to work for Obama. He assembled a staff with strong Washington and Capitol Hill connections.5 He visited nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union with the moderate and agreeable Indiana Republican Richard Lugar; and, with the ultraconservative Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, he coauthored legislation—which in late September became the first law he’s passed—requiring the publication on the Internet of the cost of all federal contracts, grants, and congressional “earmarks,” the pork barrel appropriations that have drawn much criticism in the past year.

He has not been a notable leader on the defining issue of the Bush era. Though he had been an outspoken critic of the Iraq war before it started and during his Senate campaign, it wasn’t until November 2005 that he gave his first major Iraq policy address as a senator, to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He called then, as now, for a phased withdrawal beginning in 2006, a middle-ground position among Democratic senators.6 Obama’s one brief trip to Iraq, in January 2006, during which he met with Ahmed Chalabi and other ministers, did not push him toward any firm conclusions.

But the biggest surprise of Obama’s first year was his vote for the so-called Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, the Republican bill, endorsed by the White House and signed enthusiastically by President Bush, to limit class action lawsuits. Obama’s was one of eighteen Democratic votes in favor of the legislation, but the votes of the other seventeen were mostly expected (they were Democrats from red states or members of the party’s “moderate” contingent like Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and California’s Dianne Feinstein). A fair amount of speculation arose about Obama’s vote. And it continues: in the November 2006 Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein, in a lengthy piece of reporting that inquires into the less uplifting aspects of Obama’s Senate service, reports that the bill “was lobbied for aggressively by financial firms, which constitute Obama’s second biggest single bloc of donors.”7 The financial companies hate class action suits, which can, at one stroke, impose huge burdens on industries in which they have invested.

One can’t dismiss the possibility that such lobbying may have affected Obama’s vote. But I think—from the evidence of his books and other writings—that a more likely explanation is this: he wanted, even if only to prove to himself that he could do it, to show at least one Democratic interest group that he could say no, and he chose the trial lawyers. They are less threatening than the advocates of organized labor and abortion rights. I feel certain that he just wanted to see how it felt.

Which brings us to the second possible interpretation of Obama’s equivocations. He really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican—a believer in civic virtue, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith. These concepts are consonant with liberalism in many respects, but since the rise in the 1960s of a more aggressive rights-based liberalism, which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good, the two versions have existed in some tension. Here is another passage from The Audacity of Hope on that decade:

The victories that the sixties generation brought about—the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority—have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions—that quality of trust and fellow feeling—that bring us together as Americans.

The Audacity of Hope confirms what many have suspected about Obama since he made his impressive entrance on the scene. He feels himself a man in a bubble—trapped inside political and ideological systems that are at once too small for him in their poverty of spirit and too large for him in their power to make everyone succumb to their rules. He wants to smash the bubble and assemble from the shards something dynamic and new. He believes that he is the one who can replace those “shared assumptions.” But he may need a platform larger than the Senate from which to do it.

Obama has already sent strong signals—The Audacity of Hope itself among them, some would argue—that he is seriously considering a run for the presidency in 2008. Earlier, in September, he was the headline speaker at Tom Harkin’s steak fry, an annual gathering hosted by the longtime Iowa senator that is the most important event on Iowa’s Democratic political calendar this year. The telling fact about Obama’s appearance, according to a good source, is that he asked to speak, and not the other way around. And on October 22, Obama said explicitly for the first time—reversing his previous demurrals—that he is considering a run, telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press that he had “thought about the possibility” and would think about it even harder after this year’s elections.

If he runs, he’ll have to assemble a campaign operation before mid-2007; by then he won’t have completed even one term as a senator. Given his junior status and the way the Senate works, it seems unlikely, even if the Democrats manage to recapture majority control this November 7, that Obama will be able—by, say, the Iowa caucuses—to claim that he has even one piece of major legislation to his credit (perhaps his Democratic colleagues who are preparing to run will see to it that he doesn’t). This is a complaint one hears in Washington from time to time. Ezra Klein, a sharp young Washington political journalist, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Obama is “that oddest of all creatures: a leader who’s never led.”8

But looked at unconventionally, his position seems exactly right. First and most obviously, his fame is arguably at its height. More years devoted to the flattening procedures of the Senate are arguably more likely to dull his sheen than burnish it. As Ryan Lizza wrote astutely on The New Republic’s Web sitelast December urging Obama to run in 2008:

Each day also brings with it an accumulation of tough votes, the temptations of bad compromises, potentially perilous interactions with lobbyists, and all the other behaviors necessary to operate as a successful senator. At some unknowable date in the future, remaining in the Senate will reach a point of diminishing returns for Obama.9

Ask John Kerry whether his lengthy Senate voting record was a plus in 2004.

The ambivalence that pervades The Audacity of Hope has the potential to push Obama in one of two directions. The less inspiring is that he accepts the enclosed political world he complains about in his book—that time in Washington will force him to realize that he cannot, after all, change “our politics and our civic life.” If this impulse wins, all will not necessarily be lost. He may become a great senator—a compromiser and a deal-maker and one who, in the tradition of Dirksen, learns when to push and when to hold back. Such legislators are underappreciated in today’s climate. The Senate of Dirksen’s time had more than a few of them—the former University of Chicago economist Paul Douglas, Michigan’s Philip Hart, and at least a dozen others from the 1940s through the 1970s—and their contributions were far greater than they are given credit for today. There will be no shame for Obama if he can one day claim a place among them.

But the other direction is the more tantalizing. Alone among contemporary politicians, Obama has shown a great potential to break the current red–blue stalemate and construct a new politics that is progressive but grounded in civic traditions that speak to a wider range of Americans than the existing amalgam of Democratic constituencies. He will need to demonstrate more courage than he has; he will need audacity not only of hope, but of action. He needs to attach his civic beliefs to tangible proposals—on what to do in Iraq, on how to reformulate energy policy, on how to balance liberty and security—to show us in concrete ways what his imagined America will look like. If Barack Obama can do that, then phenomenon may be just the right word.

November 1, 2006

Letters

Invitation to a Steak-Fry January 11, 2007

  1. 1

    Reported, for example, in “Networks Blew It by Blowing Off Obama,” The Kansas City Star, July 31, 2004.

  2. 2

    Dreams from My Father, revised edition (Three Rivers, 2004), p. 85.

  3. 3

    Obama has nevertheless established a political action committee, or so-called Leadership PAC, the Hope Fund. Senators and House members commonly use these committees, for which individual contributor limits are higher than for regular campaign committees, to donate to other candidates. The Hope Fund has raised just over $4 million and has donated $355,443 to sixty-eight Senate and House candidates this year. For more information, see the Web site www.opensecrets.org.

  4. 4

    A comprehensive guide to Obama’s, and all federal elected officials’, ratings can be found at the Web site of Project Vote Smart, www.vote-smart. org. The visitor to Obama’s interest-group rating page, www.vote-smart .org/issue_rating_category.php?can_id =bs030017, will see that he voted with NARAL Pro-Choice America 100 percent of the time; with the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees’ International Union 92 percent of the time; and with the League of Conservation Voters 95 percent of the time (all figures for the year 2005).

  5. 5

    See Jodi Enda, “Great Expectations,” The American Prospect, February 2005, at www.prospect.org/web/ page.ww ?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=10828. Obama’s chief of staff, Pete Rouse, had worked for Tom Daschle, and his policy adviser, Karen Kornbluh, had worked for Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

  6. 6

    Jeff Zeleny, “The First Time Around: Sen. Obama’s Freshman Year,” Chicago Tribune, December 24, 2005.

  7. 7

    Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama Inc.,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2006.

  8. 8

    Ezra Klein, “Dreaming of Obama,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2006.

  9. 9

    Ryan Lizza, “Run On,” on The New Republic‘s Web site, www.tnr.com, posted December 6, 2005.

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