What Happened to Obama?

August Kleinzahler

  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
    Canongate, 442 pp, £12.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84767 091 5
  • The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
    Canongate, 375 pp, £14.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 1 84767 035 9
  • Obama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell
    Amistad, 406 pp, $25.95, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 06 085820 9

Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois and presidential candidate, passed through San Francisco last month during a three-day visit to California, the climax of which was an ‘exclusive’ fund-raiser at Oprah Winfrey’s estate in Santa Barbara County, expected to raise around $3.5 million. Winfrey is a good friend to have, whether you’re moving depilatories, novels or presidential campaigns, and Obama needs all the friends he can get: he is trailing Hillary Clinton nationally by nearly 20 per cent and is 30 points behind in California.

You’d think Obama would be doing better, particularly out here in California, one of the more progressive of the blue states, and where youth, good looks and fast celebrity count for a lot. But he’s not, and his appearance at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, after a $2300 per head reception and a Women for Obama luncheon, drew about 1500 people, leaving the room half-empty. Nor was his speech terribly compelling, making his usual points about inclusiveness and taking a fresh approach to the big problems like healthcare, rather than indulging in the usual Washington partisan gamesmanship. This was intended as a slap at Senator Clinton, although it would be easy not to notice. Obama is above ad hominem attacks, at least on the record. Obama is about a new way of doing business in Washington.

Barack Obama is tanking badly and appears to have lost the plot. He’s frantically selling an idea of himself that fewer and fewer people are buying. His appearances are becoming as hotly anticipated as another Barry Manilow Farewell Tour. This is a shame because Obama is one of the more remarkable politicians to appear on the American scene in recent years. He is extremely intelligent, well educated and, by political standards, a decent, altruistic and very capable man. He speaks beautifully in a rich, warm baritone. He’s terrific looking: handsome, tall, rapier-thin, athletic and graceful, a tailor’s dream. Few politicians are his equal in commanding a stage. And he is black. His chief adversary in the Democratic primary has the highest disapproval rating any major presidential candidate has ever had, and is mistrusted even by her natural constituency – white, educated, middle-aged, female registered Democrats – not to mention right-wing evangelical male yahoos in the red states who’ll be goddamned before they vote for some pushy left-wing bitch.

In March, Obama had drawn a crowd of ten thousand or so outside City Hall in Oakland, just across the Bay. Last winter Rolling Stones-sized crowds gathered wherever he went: in major cities like LA and Cleveland, middle-sized cities like Austin, and smaller places like Ames, Iowa and Concord, New Hampshire. Earlier in the summer his friendly, handsome black mug seemed to grace half the magazine covers on any rack. He seemed hotter and more unstoppable than Howard Dean had during the early part of the 2004 presidential primaries, before the press and electronic media decided to destroy his candidacy. Dean frightened people, the people who count: he was principled, stubborn and unpredictable. Obama doesn’t frighten anyone very much. He’s a pussycat even if he is black. That’s his appeal. Even if Clinton stumbled badly and Obama made it onto the ticket as the Democratic presidential candidate, no one would be terribly worried, not even the folks at the Trilateral Commission or the Bohemian Grove Club or the Hoover Institution. Barack Obama is sensible, cautious and tractable. Talented, sensible, cautious, tractable African-Americans can do well among the political elites in this country: ask Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. But in any case Hillary Clinton is unlikely to stumble: she’s an alarmingly disciplined candidate.

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