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The Trouble With Obama

I'm not anti-Obama. He's quite likable on the surface. I haven't made up my mind about him. But I'm against hype, and particularly media hype, and that's what's going on. When I was the political reporter at Chicago magazine, my editor rejected both my proposals to embed with Obama first in the primary and then in the general election in order to write insider campaign accounts - win or lose.

After Obama caught fire, I proposed a story examining his legislative record, which still has gone largely unexplored. Also rejected. I proposed a story about "How Obama became Obama," namely how the circumstances of his U.S. Senate campaign, his speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the tenor of media coverage helped create the man who might be president. Also rejected.

Any story, in fact, that might be a serious journalistic enterprise including critical thinking was rejected.

But my editor, Richard Babcock, the editor of the magazine, desperately wanted an Obama story nonetheless, so he could put him on the cover and sell magazines. The cover decision had been made; now we just needed a story to go with it. And of course, that meant a puff piece, which is what they got.

Throughout the media Obama is being used to sell magazines, newspapers, and TV shows. And Obama is going along with it for his own purposes, even while slyly expressing his skepticism at the media hype.

There's a reason why the Sun-Times, in particular, is slobbering over Obama: They've determined he can help them sell newspapers. But nearly every magazine in the land is doing the same thing. I think Soybean Digest and Boxboard Containers International are the only publications yet who haven't yielded Obama covers, and rumor has it that's only because Obama hasn't completely thought through his position on soybean and boxboard subsidies.

This is not the way to pick a president - not if we want to avoid tragic, murderous disasters like Iraq or other quagmires foreign and domestic.

A presidential election may be decided (in part) by popular vote (most of the time), but it ought not be a popularity contest. The problem with Obama is that instead of changing politics the way he pledges to, his campaign merely moves politics further into the tabloid arena of celebritydom.

We should be electing people like, say, Richard Lugar or Barbara Mikulski, or even Howard Dean, who was turned into a celebrity and then laid low by party insiders, but who brought nothing but substance to the table (and was righter about the war than Obama, who is getting credit for his early stance but who has also been curiously passive on the issue since it started.)

And that's why, no matter how some Democrats (though still not the majority) might like Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, just to pick two, ought to be given a serious look because they are serious, experienced public policy leaders. If only our media was as serious.

(Personally, I think a Clinton-Webb ticket is the winner for Dems. On the Republican side, my early money is on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.)

After all, what is the job of the president? It's not a ceremonial speech-giving job. It's to get things done, and what separates candidates from each other is their ability to be effective, and even more importantly, their agenda. Can anyone tell us what Obama's top three issues are? Not really.

He and his handlers are hoping that will be a winning strategy.

His brief Senate record is good because opponents won't be able to hold votes against him? That's ludicrous; citizens are well-served by not knowing where Obama stands and seeing what he does on tough votes? Pure folly. But of course the media buys into such analyses, because they enjoy play-acting as strategists over doing their jobs as journalists.

It's folly, and I think there's a decent possibility that a very smart and likable man, Obama, will ironically crash when he is - rightly or not - exposed as too shallow and slight for the presidency.

Maybe as a result he really will change our politics.



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Posted on January 18, 2007


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