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The Obama Enigma

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Disconnection from the main currents of American life turns out to be a political disadvantage

‘I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” Barack Obama famously wrote in the prologue to The Audacity of Hope. He wrote as though this “blankness” were not part of a conscious strategy for winning the White House. It was the emptiness of his slogans — “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — that allowed liberals and moderates to consider him a soul mate. Being enigmatic also enabled him to be glamorous. Coolness and distance are not just an Obama strategy; they are also clearly integral to his personality. But they are a strategy.

That strategy has a flipside, which is that his opponents can project unattractive qualities on them. And oh have they tried. At the outer edges of our politics (and sanity) are those who affix to Obama an identity as a Muslim, or an Indonesian. At the beginning of his presidency, mainstream Republicans were wary of attacking the president personally. But that reticence lasted only a few weeks. Since then they have ventured to define him in several ways, all negative. He is weak and indecisive, they have said, especially during the drawn-out debate over his Afghanistan policy. He was acting like an “Ivy League professor,” holding “seminars” instead of acting. At other times his opponents have said he is a machine politician: a practitioner of “the Chicago way.” He is a radical. An elitist. A liar — as Rep. Joe Wilson shouted.

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