Brooks has put his finger on one of the issues that Americans have with the man.
Obama is clearly Europe's man in the contest to become president of the United States next year, but the sale is not made to those who will elect the president. I think it is likely that Obama will be elected but the outcome is still in doubt.
The soaring rhetoric of such speeches and the appeals to the better angels of our natures move people who are already within the percentage of the population who favor the idea of Barack Obama. John Kennedy's speeches moved many in 1960, but nothing like all. His false claims of a "missile gap" with the Soviets had as much to do with his election as his exhortation to become one of "freedom's frontiersmen." His wife and children were appealing, but by '63 he was thought by many Americans to be a remarkably ineffective president. At the same time, his picture was to be seen on the walls of shacks and mud huts around the world. Would he have been re-elected in 1964? This is an open question. Khrushchev thought him a posturing, empty suit. From that came much mischief. He forced the Soviet Army out of Cuba? Yes, but would they have been there if the Soviet leadership had not thought him weak and a dreamer?
There is something hollow about Obama's candidacy, something that gives citizens a chance to think him less rather than more. He should be far, far ahead of McCain in the polls. The Republican Party is a wounded beast. McCain increasingly looks like a declining, mean old man. Obama should be at least ten points ahead in national polls. Yes. Yes. I know we don't elect presidents on a national basis.
William Jennings Bryan was an orator at the soaring level of Barack Obama. His "cross of gold" speech still lives in legend, but he was never elected president.
The soaring rhetoric - that has not changed in any substantive way since it was first served up shiny and new over a year ago. The relentlesss avoidance of anything that could actually rally Democrats, such as being rid of the corrupt and failed policies of the Republican Party since Reagan. Or a whole-hearted embrace of universal health insurance. Or a line in the sand on privacy rights.As we saw in the primary, the flight from substance was also a flight from support. The longer the campaign went on, the less there was to present, the more he had to be hidden away - from debates, from primaries, from reality. Even now his blogger defenders are reduced to bleating "Racist! Racist!" when the vacuity of the candidate is identified and criticized. His votes went down. His donations went down. His polls went down. Even now, he does not dare allow an actual convention vote be taken lest he lose.
The deep problem of the Obama campaign, the one that has been there from the start and continues to slowly, steadily bleed away support, is there has never been a presence, only an absence, a "not-Hillary", the candidate defined by what he isn't, most crucially in his partisan commitments.
Some people think I call Obama "The Precious" simply as mockery, as in "Oh, isn't he so precious!" It works, but the term came from the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. The Precious is the name a raving, depraved, insane Hobbit gives to this thing that has no center and exists only to drive its possessors mad with a lust for power. The Precious allows itself to be carried about, pretending to serve, until it sees something better, at which point it abandons its current master for one that will take it further. It glitters and enchants, whispering promises of dominion:
Boromir got up and walked about impatiently. 'So you go on,' he cried. 'Gandalf, Elrond - all these folks have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-Hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!'
Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benvolent and wise.
This scene was what came to mind when I listened to otherwise rational people rave on about Obama's incredible "transformative" powers without explaining exactly how such powers were to be mustered, in whose hands this power would be placed and for what purpose. Only a Stevensonian wet dream of making everyone be good, eat sensibly, and fulfill their awesome potential. We would all be the fantasies of our own idealized selves if only we would take up The Precious Gift, The One, and believe.
But those who resisted the inwards turn towards a fantasized, perfected self (and the comcomitant forcible perfection of the world in which the perfected self exists) have done so through very practical thinking, focusing on unsexy bread and butter issues like insurance and mortgages. These are the kinds of things that gave Hillary's campaign more substance and appeal the longer it went on. No one in the Obama campaign seems to take this fact seriously, writing Hillary's support growth off as "racists" voting against Obama. Instead, we are handed more exhortations to be our fantasy. In the face of The Precious, it is not easy to resist:
Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
What Tolkien showed in LotR, and why I've dubbed Obama The Precious, is the seductive danger of believing our own fantasies of socio-political perfection figured as personal virtue writ large. We like being called to the "better angels of our nature" because very few of us want to be less than that. Accusations of racism wound deeply and can shame a person against their better judgement because it strikes directly at this internal self-image. If you very much do not want to be this reviled thing - a racist, a bigot, a stupid hick - then you cannot help but respond by reaching for the better angel within. But how can you ever make present what cannot be proved? When we project our not-so-peachy angels onto others and revile them for the crime latent in our own hearts, then you've got trouble. To identify voting for a specific person as the the only valid test of someone's deepest convictions is to become Boromir demanding to be given the Ring.
As I have asked repeatedly, what is Obama for such that a good life-long liberal like me should give him my vote? I do not need to be convinced that McCain is hideous. He is. Don't vote for him. But Obama is the incredible shrinking candidate. Without the foil of Hillary (and the primary was all about Hillary), what substance there was has vanished. I was fired up fighting for my girl. I'm hardly able to rise above my ennui to criticize The Precious and his Gollumish followers, the once reasonable people obssessively stroking the object of their desire and muttering imprecations about those who have wronged them, bedding down to dreams of revenge.
There is a hollow, fragile shell contending with a blustering old fart. Obama offered up a shiny vision of Stevensonian dominion that is steadily devolving into an internal war on the core of the party. A Media Darling beloved of the Village! Shall we not use the power of the Enemy aganist them? We are true of heart and cannot be tempted into evil, if only you miserable bitches would shut up already about health care and privacy, OK? And it only looks evil, it's not really evil, it's just what we have to do to win...
The campaign is hollow, a pretty bauble without substance, and there is precious little they can do about it.