Mar 1 2007


How loving Barack Obama helps pundits love themselves

The day after he formally announced he was a candidate for the 2008 presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) took a shot at the media. Alluding to the perception that he avoids taking strong positions on important political issues, Obama told reporters (Washington Post, 2/12/07): “The problem is that that’s not what you guys have been reporting on. You’ve been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.”

It’s not often that politicians complain that they get coverage they deem too “soft,” but Obama could make the charge with a straight face. In a sense, Obama’s complaint and the press corps’ assessment of him are both true: The press corps has—at least as of February of this year—cast Obama’s White House aspirations in mostly warm and upbeat tones; at the same time, Obama has mostly avoided staking out political positions that might be deemed “divisive” or too left-wing to the national press.

The situation is curious: an African-American politician with a fairly liberal reputation and voting record is not normally the sort of political figure one would expect to enjoy positive media coverage. What makes Barack Obama such a political phenomenon is that he functions as a Rorschach test for political reporters, who tend to see what they want to see in him and his presidential aspirations.

“Transcending race”

One of the most prevalent media messages about Obama is that he “transcends race,” or something to that effect. Newsweek (12/25/06) said he is “sometimes described as ‘post-racial,’” Time’s Joe Klein (10/23/06) wrote that he “transcends racial stereotypes,” while U.S. News & World Report (2/19/07) pointed to his “nonconfrontational, ‘post-racial’ approach.”

Whatever that is supposed to mean is not entirely clear, but it would seem to begin with the fact that Obama’s mother is white and his father was black. Writing in the Nation (3/5/07), Patricia Williams wondered:

“Transcendence” implies rising above something, cutting through, being liberated from. What would it reveal about the hidden valuations of race if one were to invert the equation by positing that Barack Obama “transcended” whiteness because his father was black?

Media discussions of Obama and race were rarely that deep, and the fact that Obama was considered a “transcendent” figure seemed to cause reporters to write even more awkwardly than usual about the subject of race. The Washington Post noted (2/18/07) that since Obama’s father “was not descended from African slaves, Obama is unlike Southern black candidates, steeped in the slavery and civil rights struggles that tore at the region for more than a century. Neither is he like the white politicians, whose skin color automatically disqualifies them from the black experience.” Helpful insight there—whites are not, it turns out, black.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced (2/9/07) that while Obama “has never positioned himself as the black candidate,” his race “will continue to be much discussed and debated.” It’s unlikely that anyone running for president would ever declare themselves “the black candidate,” but Williams seemed to be alluding to the fact that despite his blackness, Obama talks about race in a way that does not make the media establishment nervous.

As Time’s Klein put it (10/23/06), “Obama road-tested black rage, but it was never a very good fit. There was none of the crippling psychological legacy of slavery in his family’s past.” NBC host Chris Matthews (1/21/07) declared more broadly: “I don’t think you can find a better opening gate, starting gate personality than Obama as a black candidate. . . . I can’t think of a better one. No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.”

Not Al Sharpton

It was hard to miss the contrast the pundits were trying to draw with earlier black presidential candidates like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton (Extra!, 11-12/04). As Peter Beinart put it in the New Republic (2/5/07): “Today, it probably helps Obama that Al Sharpton, with his 2004 presidential run, became the ‘president of black America.’ For many white Americans, it’s a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too.”

As veteran political reporter Roger Simon put it on NBC’s Meet the Press (2/11/07), Jackson had a similar “subtext, but Barack Obama is a much different politician than Jesse Jackson—much less threatening, much more appealing, and he actually has the ability to carry this off.” Time magazine saw much the same (2/20/06):

Unlike Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, Obama is part of a new generation of black leaders who insist on being seen as more than representatives of their race. That’s in part because, as the biracial son of a white mother and an immigrant father from Kenya, he belongs to more than one.

(Of course, neither Jackson nor Sharpton—both of whom have European ancestry—presented themselves as mere spokespeople for black America; Jackson memorably described his movement as the Rainbow Coalition.)

When Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) caused a minor uproar by referring to Obama as “clean” and “articulate,” some pundits tried mightily to clean up the mess. On NBC’s Today show (2/1/07), Chris Matthews tried to smooth things over:

The other fellows, like Jackson, they came up through the civil rights struggle, Sharpton came up through protests, a lot of scar tissue, polarization along the way. When you’re a militant and you’re on the outside, you make some enemies on the inside. Well, here’s Obama coming up on the inside as a thoroughly accepted major politician from the get-go. It’s a wonderful new thing in American politics, and I wish Biden had said it better.

During a similar discussion the night before on Matthew’s Hardball program, Time reporter Jay Carney chimed in to explain that what Biden meant wasn’t intended to be offensive, only to say that Obama is different because he is an African-American candidate who is “mainstream . . . who didn’t come from the civil rights movement.” In other words, anyone involved in breaking down the door can’t come in.

He’s a centrist!

Obama’s general political outlook might be described as moderately liberal; according to the political ordering of senators based on their votes, he was roughly in the middle of the 2005-06 Senate Democrats, with 19 to his left and 25 to his right. But when pundits try to explain why they like him, it’s not his more progressive views that they talk about, but rather those instances where he tacks to the media-preferred middle.

New York Times columnist David Brooks noted (10/19/06) that Obama “conceptually welcomes free trade and thinks the U.S. may have no choice but to improvise and slog it out in Iraq.” Describing the senator as “not an orthodox liberal,” Brooks credited him with “a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS,” and declared that “he harks back to a Hamiltonian tradition that calls not for big government, but for limited yet energetic government to enhance social mobility. The contemporary guru he cites most is Warren Buffett.”

Obama has offered soaring rhetoric on healthcare, but does not endorse the single-payer solution embraced by progressives (and the majority of the public—ABC/Washington Post poll, 10/19/03). A rare critical profile of Obama by Harper’s Magazine’s Ken Silverstein (11/06) noted his ties to various corporate-affiliated fundraisers, his opposition to calls for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq and his support for Joe Lieberman over Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont.

Such assessments of Obama’s record are rare, with even left-leaning commentators seemingly willing to dismiss any aspects of Obama’s record that conflict with his progressive reputation. Liberal writer Michael Tomasky (New York Review of Books, 11/30/06), for example, dismissed the role of corporate lobbyists in winning Obama’s support for a corporate-friendly class-action “reform” bill. Tomasky’s alternative explanation:

He wanted, even if only to prove to himself that he could do it, to show at least one Democratic interest group that he could say no, and he chose the trial lawyers. They are less threatening than the advocates of organized labor and abortion rights. I feel certain that he just wanted to see how it felt.

Time columnist and ultra-centrist Joe Klein (12/26/05) hailed Obama for criticizing “Democratic advocacy groups that opposed the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court in their usual vituperative fashion—even though Obama himself opposed the nomination.” Months later (10/23/06), Klein praised Obama as “a liberal, but not a screechy partisan. Indeed, he seems obsessively eager to find common ground with conservatives.”

Conservative pundit Michael Barone (U.S. News, 12/25/06) imagined that Obama, “by emphasizing what Americans of differing views have in common, invites us to an era of less bitter partisanship. His own background—mother from Kansas, father from Kenya, childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, education at Columbia and Harvard Law—seems to span the breadth of American experience.”

Setting such lofty expectations will cause the occasional letdown. When Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain backed different ethics reform bills, Barone’s U.S. News colleague Mort Zuckerman lamented (2/20/06) the falling out between senators who “represent the best hope for a real revival of centrism, the rational bipartisan consensus that expresses the nation’s will with force and eloquence and that has served America so well in its worst crises.” (According to VoteView, McCain’s voting record made him the second-most conservative senator in the 109th Congress, after fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl.)

How he makes us feel about us

Given that big-time punditry often requires a sizeable dose of narcissism, it’s not surprising that some pundits praising Obama saw his candidacy as having deep personal meaning. “Like many Americans, I long to see an African-American ascend to the presidency,” wrote conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (10/27/06). “It would be an event of profound significance, a great milestone in the unfolding story of African-Americans achieving their rightful, long-delayed place in American life.”

Even when not explicitly treating Obama as a source of personal satisfaction, many in the media treated his rise as a reason for America as a whole to feel good about itself. Reporter Roger Simon put it bluntly on NBC’s Meet the Press (2/11/07), “If America actually nominates him and then votes for him for president and elects him, this will be a sign that we are a good and decent country that has healed its racial wounds.”

The Washington Post took a similar approach in a January 18, 2007 editorial, making it explicit that, reality be damned, this is about a dream:

The excitement about Mr. Obama speaks in part to Americans’ desire to believe, whether true or not, that this country has come to a point when it can rise above its ugly history of racism; and in part to the desire to believe that, if it could just overcome the divisions that foul modern politics, the nation could get unstuck on many fronts.

For Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter (12/25/06), Obama shared feel-good potential with Hillary Clinton: “A black president in a country that fought a civil war over race might even prove cathartic. And a woman president would show the rest of the world that the United States is not a sexist nation. Whatever happens, the process feels uplifting.”

For these psychological reasons, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume (1/21/07) counted Obama’s race as “an asset,” saying:

I think most Americans—the overwhelming majority of Americans—deeply want to see African-Americans get ahead in this country and they are proud of those that do. And for Barack Obama, a lot of people would be impelled, I think, to vote for him for president, all other things being equal, in part because he’s black.

Considering that Obama serves in a Senate that is 94 percent white and 1 percent African-American, the idea that his race gives him a political advantage is rather far-fetched. Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford had a more realistic appraisal of Obama’s pundit appeal (CounterSpin, 11/17/06): “He has given white people a kind of satisfaction—that race no longer matters in America, and all the sins of the past can be washed away through the act of loving this man.”

Some habits die hard

This is not to say, of course, that all coverage of Obama has been cheery. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press (1/22/06), host Tim Russert thought it worthwhile to quiz Obama about statements made by singer Harry Belafonte. Russert dressed up the inquiries as merely “about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006,” but it was hard not to think that Obama was being asked such questions because both he and Belafonte are black.

The New Republic’s Peter Beinart (2/5/07) was apparently trying to give Obama some support when he wrote that thanks to “welfare reform, the percentage of whites saying ‘poor people have become too dependent on government assistance’ has dropped markedly,” which is “good news for all Democrats, but especially for Obama, who would be particularly vulnerable to suspicions that he was trying to redistribute money from whites to blacks.” Similar “suspicions” might resurface later in the campaign; ABC News reporter Jake Tapper alleged (2/11/07), for example, that Obama’s Chicago church “expresses a message of black power” that might be “too militant for mainstream America to accept.”

NPR reporter Juan Williams, meanwhile, predicted (Fox News Sunday, 1/21/07) that Obama could have other image problems: “Don’t forget the idea that, you know, he comes from a father who was a Muslim and all that. I mean, I think that given we’re at war with Muslim extremists, that presents a problem.”

Nonetheless, the media consensus on Obama remains positive, for a variety of reasons. He makes pundits feel good about America—particularly their own overwhelmingly white slice of elite America—and his politics are moderate enough to avoid the type of crude caricature that other candidates might receive. Time’s Klein sized up Obama’s candidacy by noting (10/23/06) that “the expectations are ridiculous. He transcends the racial divide so effortlessly that it seems reasonable to expect that he can bridge all the other divisions—and answer all the impossible questions—plaguing American public life.” Or as the New York Times’ Brooks argued (10/19/06), “It may not be personally convenient for him, but the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses.”

Washington Post columnist George Will (12/14/06) described Obama’s White House run with a metaphor that sounded like it had been swiped from an Andy Hardy movie:

If you get the girl up on her tiptoes, you should kiss her. The electorate is on its tiptoes because Obama has collaborated with the creation of a tsunami of excitement about him. He is nearing the point when a decision against running would brand him as a tease who ungallantly toyed with the electorate’s affections.

Obama, of course, did decide to run. How long the press corps will continue to express its affection for him—or for its version of him—remains to be seen.