Technology with attitude

The Struggle to Define Obama

7

Conservative essayist Jonah Goldberg goes on an anti-Barack Obama tear in USA Today. His beef? Obama, Goldberg claims, is a postmodernist who believes in no permanent truths. As you read the piece, you can hear Goldberg’s bubbling frustration and disgust – both at what he sees as Obama’s duplicity and at his own inability to pin down the enigmatic Illinois senator.

Goldberg’s argument isn’t great. His understanding of postmodernism seems rather rudimentary (or purposefully oversimplified) and his application of that field of thought to Obama is tangential at best. But his desperate attempt to define Obama gives support to another editorial circulating today: this one by David Brooks who hypothesizes that Obama is only marginally ahead in the polls primarily because many voters are still struggling to define the senator.

Brooks points out:

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Brooks sees Obama as being detached from every place he’s lived and from every organization of which he’s been apart. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that we the voters are detached from Obama’s experiences. How many of us are bi-racial, raised predominately overseas and graduates of elite universities? Even George Bush’s silver-spoon, prodigal son life is more universal.

We struggle to define Obama because we struggle to understand the experiences which formed him. We have no easy touchstones like we did for Bill Clinton (poor kid made good) or John McCain (determined warrior). Our inability to define Obama is as much the fault of our own need for easy labels as it is the fault of Obama’s rapid ascent and habit of distancing himself from past affiliations (Rev. Wright, anyone?).

To win this thing in a landslide, Obama will need to get out of the image-enhancing, brand-building mode and into the trust-building mode. The more voters trust him and believe they know what kind of president he’ll be, the larger his victory can be.