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By David Brooks
Why isn't Barack Obama doing better? Why, after all that has happened, does he have only a slim two- or three-point lead over John McCain, according to an average of the recent polls? Why is he basically tied with his opponent when his party is so far ahead?
His age probably has something to do with it. So does his race. But the polls and focus groups suggest that people aren't dismissive of Obama or hostile to him. Instead, they're wary and uncertain.
And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book "Dreams From My Father" with a quotation from Chronicles: "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers."
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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.
Last week Jodi Kantor of The Times described Obama's 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. "The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count," Kantor wrote.
He was a popular and charismatic professor, but he rarely took part in faculty conversations or discussions about the future of the institution. He had a supple grasp of legal ideas, but he never committed those ideas to paper by publishing a piece of scholarship.
He was in the law school, but not of it.
This has been a consistent pattern throughout his odyssey. His childhood was a peripatetic journey through Kansas, Indonesia, Hawaii and beyond. He absorbed things from those diverse places but was not fully of them.
His college years were spent on both coasts. He was a community organizer for three years but left before he could be truly effective. He became a state legislator, but he was in the Legislature, not of it. He had some accomplishments, but as Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker wrote, he was famously bored by the institution and used it as a stepping stone to higher things.
He was in Trinity United Church of Christ, but not of it, not sharing the liberation theology that energized Jeremiah Wright Jr. He is in the United States Senate, but not of it. He has not had the time nor the inclination to throw himself into Senate mores, or really get to know more than a handful of his colleagues. His Democratic supporters there speak of him fondly, but vaguely.
And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.
This ability to stand apart accounts for his fantastic powers of observation, and his skills as a writer and thinker. It means that people on almost all sides of any issue can see parts of themselves reflected in Obama's eyes. But it does make him hard to place.
When we're judging candidates (or friends), we don't just judge the individuals but the milieus that produced them. We judge them by the connections that exist beyond choice and the ground where they will go home to be laid to rest. Andrew Jackson was a backwoodsman. John Kennedy had his clan. Ronald Reagan was forever associated with the small-town virtues of Dixon and Jimmy Carter with Plains.
It is hard to plant Obama. Both he and his opponent have written coming-of-age tales about their fathers, but they are different in important ways. McCain's "Faith of My Fathers" is a story of a prodigal son. It is about an immature boy who suffers and discovers his place in the long line of warriors that produced him. Obama's "Dreams From My Father" is a journey forward, about a man who took the disparate parts of his past and constructed an identity of his own.
If you grew up in the 1950s, you were inclined to regard your identity as something you were born with. If you grew up in the 1970s, you were more likely to regard your identity as something you created.
If Obama is fully a member of any club - and perhaps he isn't - it is the club of smart post-boomer meritocrats. We now have a cohort of rising leaders, Obama's age and younger, who climbed quickly through elite schools and now ascend from job to job. They are conscientious and idealistic while also being coldly clever and self-aware. It's not clear what the rest of America makes of them.
So, cautiously, the country watches. This should be a Democratic wipeout. But voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place.
By Thomas Sowell
Aug 12, 2008
Many years ago, when I was a college student, I took a course from John Kenneth Galbraith. On the first day of class, Professor Galbraith gave a brilliant opening lecture, after which the students gave him a standing ovation.
Galbraith kept on giving brilliant opening lectures the whole semester. But, instead of standing ovations, there were now dwindling numbers of students and some of them got up and walked out in the middle of his lectures.
Galbraith never got beyond the glittering generalities that marked his first lecture. After a while, the students got tired of not getting any real substance.
Senator Barack Obama's campaign this year reminds me very much of that course from Professor Galbraith. Many people were ecstatic during the early primaries, as each state's voters heard his glittering generalities for the first time.
The media loved the novelty of a black candidate with a real chance to become president, and his left-wing vision of the world was largely their vision as well. There was a veritable media honeymoon for Obama.
There was outrage in the mainstream media when ABC anchor man Charles Gibson asked Obama a serious question about the economic effects of a capital gains tax. Who interrupts honeymooners to talk economics?
The fact that Senator Obama did not have a very coherent answer made things worse-- for Charles Gibson. Since Obama can do no wrong in the eyes of many of his supporters, they resented Gibson's having asked him such a question.
The question, incidentally was why Senator Obama was advocating a higher capital gains tax rate, when experience had shown that the government typically collected more revenue from a lower capital gains tax rate than from a higher rate.
Senator Obama acted as if he had never thought about it that way. He probably hadn't. He is a politician, not an economist.
Politically, what matters to the left-wing base that Obama has been playing to for decades is sticking it to "the rich." What effect that has on the tax revenues received by the government is secondary, at best.
What effect a higher capital gains tax rate will have on the economy today and on people's pensions in later years is a question that is not even on Senator Obama's radar screen.
Economists may say that higher capital gains tax rates can translate into lower levels of economic activity and fewer jobs, but Obama will leave that kind of analysis to the economists. He is in politics, and what matters politically is what wins votes right here and right now.
The kind of talk that won the votes-- and the hearts-- of the left-wing base of the Democratic Party during the primaries may not be enough to carry the day with voters in the general election. So Senator Obama has been changing his tune or, as he puts it, "refining" his message.
This was not the kind of "change" that the true believers among Obama's supporters were expecting. So there has been some wavering among the faithful and some ups and downs in the polls.
Despite an impressive political machine and a huge image makeover this year to turn a decades-long, divisive grievance-promoting activist into someone who is supposed to unite us all and lead us into the promised land of "change," little glimpses of the truth keep coming out.
The elitist sneers at people who believe in religion and who own guns, the Americans who don't speak foreign languages and the views of the "typical white person," are all like rays of light that show through the cracks in Obama's carefully crafted image.
The overwhelming votes for Obama in some virtually all-white states show that many Americans are ready to move beyond race. But Obama himself wants to have it both ways, by attributing racist notions to the McCain camp that has never made race an issue.
The problem with clever people is that they don't know when to stop being clever-- and Senator Obama is a very clever man, perhaps "too clever by half" as the British say. But maybe he can't keep getting by with glittering generalities, any more than Galbraith could.
By Jonah Goldberg
Aug 4, 2008
In the Illinois senator's world, words have no fixed meaning, and truth is often just a matter of perspective.
Asked to define sin, Barack Obama replied that sin is "being out of alignment with my values." Statements such as this have caused many people to wonder whether Obama has a God complex or is hopelessly arrogant. For the record, sin isn't being out of alignment with your own values (if it were, Hannibal Lecter wouldn't be a sinner because his values hold that it's OK to eat people) nor is it being out of alignment with Obama's - unless he really is our Savior.
There is, however, a third possibility. Obama is a postmodernist.
An explosive fad in the 1980s, postmodernism was and is an enormous intellectual hustle in which left-wing intellectuals take crowbars and pick axes to anything having to do with the civilizational Mount Rushmore of Dead White European Males.
"PoMos" hold that there is no such thing as capital-T "Truth." There are only lower-case "truths." Our traditional understandings of right and wrong, true and false, are really just ways for those Pernicious Pale Patriarchs to keep the Coalition of the Oppressed in their place. In the PoMo's telling, reality is "socially constructed." And so the PoMos seek to tear down everything that "privileges" the powerful over the powerless and to replace it with new truths more to their liking.
Hence the deep dishonesty of postmodernism. It claims to liberate society from fixed meanings and rigid categories, but it is invariably used to impose new ones, usually in the form of political correctness. We've all seen how adept the PC brigades are celebrating free speech, when it's for speech they like.
Words as power, facts as myths
Obama gives every indication of having evolved from this intellectual soup. As a student and, later, a law school instructor, Obama was sympathetic to Critical Race Theory, a wholly owned franchise of postmodernism. At Harvard, Obama revered Derrick Bell, a controversial black law professor who preferred personally defined literary truths over old-fashioned literal truth. Words are power, Bell and Co. argued, and your so-called facts are merely myths of the white power structure.
When Hillary Clinton criticized Obama for being all about empty rhetoric and no action, Obama mocked Clinton - "Don't tell me words don't matter!" - sounding like a sorcerer offended by the suggestion that magic incantations are mere sounds.
One reason Obama seems arrogant is that he can never admit he was wrong, a common shortcoming of politicians. But Obama sometimes literally gets exasperated with people who think his words can mean anything other than what he thinks they should mean. Even when he says things he later regrets such as on, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement, he merely says that his rhetoric got overheated, but that he was still accurate. When Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and "spiritual adviser" of 20 years, was caught on videotape (recorded and sold by Wright himself) saying things that contradicted everything Obama ever said about being a post-racial, moderate candidate, Obama simply said that that's not the Jeremiah Wright he knows, as if his personal perspective settled the issue.
Would that I could have told my math teacher upon receiving a failing grade, "That's not the math I know."
On the troop surge, Obama's position has changed countless times, but he says it's unchanged. Worse, he has this grating habit of prefacing his new positions with something like "as I said at the time." But he didn't say "it" at the time, he said the opposite of "it." But saying that he said "it" is, to him, the same as having said "it."
We're told that Obama is "post-racial," but he invokes his own race whenever convenient (e.g., to suggest his opponents are racists, to win support of people who want to vote for him on account of his race). Indeed, the very idea that Obama is post-racial is postmodern claptrap, since only a black candidate can be post-racial, right? No one would say John McCain transcends race. If being post-racial is something only a (liberal) black politician can do, what is "post" about it? Post-racial is just another convenient term used to advance a left-wing agenda under the guise of some highfalutin buzzwords.
A theoretical reality
The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the singular ideal of movement-ness. Obama's followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff - another American hugely popular in Germany - hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.
In Berlin two weeks ago, Obama's speech was justified solely by the fact that he was giving it. He offered no policy and - not being a president - really had no reason to be there other than to tell people, essentially, "now is the moment." He informed the throbbing masses, bathing in his charisma the way hippies wallowed in the mud at Woodstock, that the greatest threat facing the world is the possibility we might allow "new walls to divide us from one another." Nuclear war? Feh. No, walls, walls are the danger. Of course, these new walls aren't real. Some might even say they're just words.
But not Barack Obama.
Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online and author of Liberal Fascism, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.