Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Not That Hard To Place

David Brooks wonders why Barack Obama isn’t leading in the polls by a landslide like the rest of the Democratic field.

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.”

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.


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.

The fact that the GOP and the McCain campaign have spent millions of dollars and reams of talking points to point out that Mr. Obama isn’t “one of us,” that he’s a celebrity who is subliminally a threat to white women, and whatever the smear of the week happens to be had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.

There are times when I can respect and even admire David Brooks’s pedantic tone and his attempt to put a historical perspective on current events. Then there are times when he just comes across as clueless to the machinations of the people who are trying with all their money and their might to distort the history and the record of their opponent. That’s when he shrugs and chalks it up to something ingrained in both the voters and the candidate:

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.

That’s a coy way of saying what Mr. Obama said about himself, “they’re trying to scare you about me,” and it seems more than just a little disingenuous for Mr. Brooks to chalk it up as something that’s “hard to place.” Is that his way of saying “uppity”?