Illinois Sen. Barack H. Obama is one big effervescent bubble of enthusiasm and integrity. And, after a presidential election in which the best that Washington had to offer was a bumbling Bush, a cadaverous Kerry, and a deranged Dean, he is exactly what our citizens are starving for. More than ever, the American public needs its messiah, and Barack, blessed with the chance to project himself as new, green, and uncorrupted, has been clever enough to slip easily into the role of savior.
He made the announcement of his presidential bid earlier this month in Springfield, Illinois, in front of the Old State Capitol, the very same place where, in Obama’s words, “[Abraham] Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together.” You can bet that this will not be the last time that Obama frames himself as Lincoln 2.0; the marketing opportunity is just too good to miss.
Both men served for eight years in the Illinois legislature, and both spent only a few years in the U.S. Senate before running for President. Furthermore, as Obama’s campaign whispers slyly to us, the parallels between the two go beyond mere coincidence into the two men’s core creeds. You see, Lincoln wanted peace and harmony in a divided America, and now Obama, against all odds, also wants peace and harmony.
Compelling though this logic is, there’s one small place where the analogy falters: Lincoln was one of the most divisive and opinionated candidates ever elected. He had a rock-solid stance against slavery, and when he called on mending the “house divided,” he did not propose to do so with flowering rhetoric and vague promises of cooperation, but rather by ending the spread of slavery. Consensus builder? Half of the country seceded when the man was elected. This was a leader who knew that the only way to truly mend a country was to take difficult, unpopular stances, and to fight for them, rather than to simply ride populist appeal.
Obama, in contrast, is so set on inoffensiveness that it’s getting hard to see any substance behind the veil of smiles and cuddles. His agenda includes eliminating poverty, creating energy independence, and building consensus between parties. Lucifer himself couldn’t take issue with this platform. All that’s left for Obama to do to cover all his populist bases is to absorb Justin Timberlake’s progressive platform of “bringing sexy back.”
Why is this a problem? Well, there are only two ways we can judge a candidate. One is experience, which the other front-runners can claim to have, but which Obama proudly declares he does not need in order to realize “that the ways of Washington must change.” The second is personality. Once more, Obama has not yet been generous: By shrouding himself in the breezy fabric of audacious promises and good publicity, Obama has not given us any substance on which to judge him.
For many, Obama’s charm will be enough. We are so starved for political energy that we will gladly take Obama even if his flair never coalesces into a realistic platform. However, it would be far shrewder for us to acknowledge our own desperation for a likable candidate, hold out for just a bit longer, and demand that Obama turn his campaign into more than just eye and ear candy. He may indeed be a tremendous candidate, the first in years to be able to fuse the ability to persuade with the resolve to take difficult, potentially unpopular stances. But until he gives us more evidence of the latter, Obama will remain a smiling Emperor with no clothes, and woe betide those who are already prepared to usher him naked into office.
Michael Segal ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Cabot House.