Can Obama become too hip for his own good?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 15 2008 8:58 PM

The Totally Coolest Candidate Ever

Can Obama become too hip for his own good?

Barack Obama just seems to get cooler and cooler. He's the most popular topic on the New York Times topics page, ahead of even the Westminster Dog Show. Internet widgets allow you to see what great things Barack Obama has done for you (he mowed your lawn). At Slate we also had fun with the cult of Obama. And on the New York subway Friday morning, one of our copy editors heard one woman joke to another: "Obama, will you pick me up after my noninvasive minor surgical procedure?" To which the other replied: "Obama, will you hold my hair back when I puke?" (The two went on to discuss the merits of J. Crew vs. Banana Republic. Seriously.) The parlor games go on. My commute is shorter since I started traveling with Barack Obama. This burrito has a real Obama to it. In this cold? Not without your Barack Obama.

Among a crowd of hip and stylish Democrats, announcing one's skepticism about the cool kid would totally dampen the party. Nor is the dynamic just true for young people. John Lewis, the venerable civil rights hero and congressman, put words to this feeling recently. "In recent days, there is a sense of movement and a sense of spirit," he said, suggesting that he might switch his superdelegate vote from Hillary Clinton to Obama. "Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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If you insist on being that party-killing skeptic, it either means you're a Washington cynic, supporting the worst elements of Clinton's campaign, or you're cluelessly out of step with the sway of the culture. On Facebook, people write about dreams featuring Obama. There is only one correct reaction to the will.i.am "Yes We Can" video, and that is to start chanting along. That's why the Obama campaign sent it out to supporters. He is the sun, the moon, the Ambien, and the Red Bull.

Big deal. People like him. That usually happens with the front-runners. They get more votes, and then they win. (Although with these maddening Democratic Party apportionment rules, I think winning also requires hopping on one foot.) But isn't there a natural limit to our enthusiasm for to this kind of sweeping phenomenon? Isn't the generation that Obama has so successfully courted usually the first to toss overhyped products, even the overhyped products with which they were at first so enthralled? More generally, shouldn't Democrats who have complained that George Bush was elected on the strength of a popularity contest be nervous that this blossoming Obamadulation is getting out of hand?

So far, no one seems to much care. There have been a few pieces from columnists questioning the messianic impulse with Obama, and a mocking Web site, but that's it for backlash. OK, so I'll say it: Some of Obama's supporters have gone around the bend. There was the woman in New Hampshire who compared him to Christ. There was Maria Shriver's comparison of the candidate to the state of California, with the rhetorical fervor usually seen only after a preacher shouts, "You are healed!"

There is also plenty of self-hype to knock down. Obama is not as bold as he claims and doesn't tell as many hard truths as he professes to. His Senate record of bipartisanship is fine as far as it goes, but that isn't as big a deal as he makes it seem. Cooperating with Republicans on nuclear proliferation and lobbying reform is not nearly as hard, nor does it require the same skills, as forging agreement on taxes and spending, judicial nominations, or electronic surveillance. On the day Sen. Patrick Leahy endorsed Obama and I asked him what problem Obama could solve with his powers of bipartisanship, the Democrat from Vermont asserted Kennedy parallels rather than name one.

The good news for Obama is that even if he's not as bold as he claims, he has been bolder on the stump than Clinton. Maybe he's not the Senate's bipartisan maestro, but it's hard to find Republicans who leave her rallies in tears. And so far, the people who are making the case that he's overhyped are generally aligned with Hillary Clinton, which makes the charge seem too political to have merit. After Obama trounced her in the Potomac primaries, Clinton referred to the Texas expression "all hat and no cattle." She was referring to George Bush, but she was hoping to conjure the image of Obama without cows as well. In the mildly astringent ad Clinton ran before the Wisconsin primary, she taunts Obama by saying that instead of wanting to face hard questions in a debate, he only wants to speechify airy platitudes.

This is the central argument in the closing Clinton assault. Her new attack line is that Obama's in the speaking business while she's in the solutions business. (She's also apparently in the slogans business; this is a repackaging of her previous claim from New Hampshire to be "a doer not a talker.")

But the Clinton team has been pushing the overhyped charge for months without getting far. When Obama announced his health-care plan almost a year ago, it was to beat back the rap that he wasn't substantive enough to offer detailed policy proposals. Now the candidate deflects Clinton by telegraphing that he's about to be boring, as he did before a recent economic speech. "Today I want to take it down a notch," he said, saying his speech would be "a little more detailed, a little longer, with not as many applause lines." It's all about managing expectations. Obama also seeks to minimize his policy-related differences with Clinton, elevating his power to persuade as the reason to choose between them.

There's another external reason Obama may not fall from the supercool perch he now occupies. It was Hillary Clinton who was supposed to be the beneficiary of unstoppable popularity, or at least support. She was the inevitable, untouchable candidate. And then Democrats said, hey, wait a minute, and to second place she fell. Now Clinton has got to hope that she can get the voters to say that again, before it's too late to stop the hype.

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