Politics & Policy

St. Barack Was a Mirage

The senator is losing what made him seem special and inspiring.

Politics is a funny and challenging profession; often one can’t tell that one is approaching a tipping point until it has been reached.

I wonder if Barack Obama is approaching his.

Obama announced on Thursday that he will opt out of public financing for his presidential run. Offering a breathtakingly jaded and calculating explanation (the Republicans made him do it), Obama betrayed what we were told was the closest thing the candidate had to a high and inviolate principle: political and campaign finance reform. When that principle collided with his political self-interest, Obama invoked the same method that he used, for instance, with Jeremiah “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother” Wright: He disposed of that which is not politically expedient.

Obama has become what Jennifer Rubin at Contentions refers to as the “never mind” candidate. “Never mind” what he said about the Reverend Wright, flag pins, NAFTA, the importance of not losing in Iraq (in 2004-2005), the threat of Iran, meeting with Ahmadinejad, Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, and so on.

The problem for Obama is that his core appeal has been largely aesthetic; he positioned himself as St. Barack, flying high and high-mindedly above the “old” politics of distractions, divisions, and cynicism. He wouldn’t play the “Washington game.” Obama has been sold to us as post-everything (post-partisan, post-ideological, post-racial, and post-label). If that appeal is stripped away, then Obama will be seen as a deeply and reflexively liberal one-term senator — and as something of a fraud. That combination may be enough to defeat him in a year that should overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

I doubt we’ve reached the point at which Obama’s tactical moves have metastasized into a character problem — but I suspect we’re getting close. Columnists like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, both of whom have had favorable things to say about Obama in the past (as have I), wrote columns on Friday that are evidence of how much things have changed when it comes to Obama. Even among our political class, Obama seems to stand out as highly ambitious, fairly ruthless, and utterly self-interested political figure. When John McCain says he would rather lose an election than lose a war, it is a believable claim. One cannot imagine Obama saying — well, sincerely saying — that same thing about anything. His political viability — a term once used by a young Bill Clinton — seems to matter above all to Barack Obama, dwarfing every other consideration.

So far Obama, who emerged from the polluted waters of Chicago politics, has played his game with brilliant efficiency. Very few politicians are able to pull off not only appearing to be different than they are, but appearing to be the opposite of what they are. And even fewer have the gift of denouncing what they embody and getting away with it. Yet my sense is something fundamental is changing in how we view Obama; he is losing what made him seem special and inspiring.

Sen. Obama should not be underestimated since his achievements during this campaign are nothing short of amazing. Bill Clinton’s success demonstrated that Americans don’t always elect presidents based on their political character. But if the public comes to view the central claim of the Obama candidacy as fraudulent, and the Obama appeal as essentially a mirage, he’s going to have a much tougher time than his supporters ever imagined. It will ultimately be up to John McCain and his campaign to make this case in a compelling fashion. McCain’s instinct may be to resist doing so, and Obama will be aided by a media that has, at least until now, been enchanted by him. Obama, after all, is the candidate who, in words we all wish were slightly less revealing, sends a thrill up the leg of Chris Matthews. No matter. McCain has an important obligation to the public to ensure that we know what we’re getting if we elect Barack Obama as president. It may be a man far different, and far more cynical and less thrilling, than he appeared just six months ago.

— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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