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February 22, 2007

Obama as Personal Messiah
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A fun, half-serious (?) email discussion I had with a friend today. Topic? Obama as personal savior. 

...when it comes to presidential candidates, specific policy prescriptions concern me less than character, charisma, intelligence, and a willingness to say things that are unpopular but honest. To cite an example, there is almost nothing Barack Obama could say or do in the next two years (short of advocating that we roundup all young Arab Muslim males) that would make me NOT support him. B/c I trust him as a person. I trust his character.

Friend: Do you have a reason for wanting a candidate who is charismatic, intelligent, willing to say unpopular things, regardless of what those things are/what their policies are?  Do you think that makes them more electable?  Do you think that will make them a better president?  Do you think that will make them more likely to talk to moderate Islamist parties?  Or is it just a personal preference for charismatic presidents?

Me: i want to be inspired. i want to believe in something. i want to fight for something. i want a cause. i want a mission. i want love. i want something extraordinary. i am lost. i want to be found.

Friend: Sounds like you need a shrink, not a presidential candidate 


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Do you think that ties into why you're occassionally willing to throw a compliment Secretary Rice's way? While her policies have generally been ineffective she often gives lip service to a democratic middle-east in the way hardcore realists tend not to.

Similarly I think a lot of your fights with the actively anti-interventionist on the left often seem to stem from their rhetoric ticking you off.

This isn't to say you ignore policy. You're quite willing to critique hypocritical implementations. It's just that you seem to give a particularly high weight to rhetoric in picking your fights.

Also, on a lighter note, did you see the Daily Show that had Obama entering with "Jesus Christ, Superstar" as his theme music? I found it particularly amusing because if he really wanted to, he might just be able to pull off that kind of an entrance. It would obviously be a ridiculous thing to do, but that wouldn't make it any less cool.

Style over substance wins every time. Obama has voted for the Patriot Act, continued funding for the bloated military, etc. but he's got such a nice smile--that's the important thing. Give me charisma or give me death! Or what the hey, give me both.

Speaking of Egypt, Mubarak also has a nice smile, as he jails and tortures the Muslim Brotherhood, no?


yes, I do have a weak spot for soaring, Wilsonian rhetoric. What can I say? I think politics should inspire. At the same time, I also recognize that few things can be more destructive than soaring rhetoric that hides what is, in fact, a hollow cynicism. Nothing is worse that raising expectations prematurely. The gap between what is, what should be, and what can never be is perhaps the most dangerous gap in politics.

Well Don, I included "intelligence" in my list of desirables, which is presumably something of substance and not just style. And that's the thing with Obama- I trust him because I like the way he thinks, wraps his mind around problems. I also agree with the principles upon which he builds his policies.

Also, I should note that there may be another problem at play. For me, politics is very "personal," which may mean that I subconsciously "project" on my favorite political leaders. I suspect that if i had a shrink, that's what he'd probably tell me.


Just out of curiosity, when do you think that sort of gap is most dangerous?

In some cases, we've gotten people killed through high rhetoric that was essentially a bluff. The attempted revolutions in Hungary and by Iraqi Shia's are widely cited as examples where we failed to support our calls for revolution.

Then there's the cases where we've supported bad actors because we think they bring about stability.

Finally, there's direct bad acts on our part such as prisoner mistreatment.

I'm really not quite sure. I think the later two would tend to anger the relevant people regardless of our rhetoric. Although maybe the rhetoric also rubs some extra salt in the wounds. By comparison, that first category might be the place where rhetoric is most deadly on its own.

What is being described here is the Democrats' Kennedy Complex, the yearning for a President who will inspire, who will thrill, who will courageously say things that are unpopular with other people and who if at all possible looks as if he could model underwear for a living.

The Kennedy Complex, though a force in Democratic Presidential politics, is usually insufficient to overcome the dominance over the party exercised by organized interest groups. Once "the groups" reach a consensus that a prospective nominee is completely theirs, it doesn't matter what that candidate's opponents say or what they look like, as the last Kennedy Complex candidate, John Edwards in 2004, found out. But during the course of the campaign a KC candidate can burst out of the pack and be in toward the end of the primary season (this will occur next year around the middle of February) and have a shot in case "the groups'" favored candidate stumbles.

Anyone who doubts the force of this analysis should consider how inspirational Barack Obama would be if he looked like Carl Levin.

Anyone who doubts the force of this analysis should consider how inspirational Barack Obama would be if he looked like Carl Levin.

This is a condemnation of politics in the age of television, not just the Democratic party. How inspirational would Reagan have been if he looked and sounded like Steve Forbes? Would Bush be president today if he looked like Phil Gramm? I don't think so.

Both parties have powerful interest groups that largely determine who the candidate will be. There's a reason why McCain sounds like a born again Christian. In 2000 he said that Robertson doesn't run the Republican party. South Carolina taught him differently.

My goodness, how I agree with Shadi …..however, I firmly believe the age of elections on American intuition is past. I am greatly saddened by Americans apathy in educating themselves on policy. While I find Obama to be absolutely mesmerizing, our country is in huge need of some global damage control, and I just don’t think he’s ready or experienced enough to do it. VP? Maybe? Let’s groom him for 2016. Conversely, Hillary wouldn’t know charisma if it bit her in the rear…but her experience is unmatched.

Is Edwards the democrats ‘medium’ between knowledge and personality?

On soaring rhetoric…easy to follow, hard to control. I strongly feel that the 04 elections reelected this administration on soaring conservative rhetoric with the main common analogy among the masses being ‘don’t change a coach in the middle of a football game’. The soaring conservative rhetoric that ‘eradicate terrorism’ and 'protect the homeland' has led us into 4 (some say 8) years of blind sheep-ism.

I patiently wait for American citizens to lead by electing a leader based on their knowledge of his/her experience (What Is), initiative (What Should Be), and wisdom (What Can Never Be). Hmmm….the political prayer of serenity?

Actually I think you are misunderstanding who it is in our society that votes for perceived character and yearns for a savior: it's the independents. Not all of them, of course. However many independents are independent precisely because issues aren't as important to them as their perception of the character of a politician. "I vote for the man, not the party" is their mantra. Independents tend to be less well informed and more prepared to admit their lack of knowledge than party activists. That's why they vote for the man: they don't see themselves as being qualified to judge so they want a President that they can trust to judge things wisely for them.

I don't think that pattern is at all prevalent in party activist Democrats or nonactivists who always vote for Democrats. Not that Democrats never think that way, just that it isn't as common as an orientation to issue. Except this cycle: there is an overwhelmming concern about picking the candidate that can win and a deep desire to change the direction of American politics 180% away from the extremism and bad faith of the Republicans.
Which is exactly why it would be very, very smart for Democrats to pick Obama, even if the charisma bugs charisma-phobic issue oriented party acitivists. I am one of the Obamaoists, fervently, not because I want to worship someone, but because I want my party to be smart enough to pick the candidate that other people will want to worship.

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