Dispatch April 2008

The Peril of Obama

The glamour of Obama may be hard to resist, but could it get the country into trouble if he wins the presidency?
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Barack Obama has brought glamour back to American politics—not the faux glamour-by-association of campaigning with movie stars or sailing with the Kennedys, but the real thing. The candidate himself is glamorous. Audiences project onto him the personal qualities and political positions they want in a president. They look at Obama and see their hopes and dreams.

Glamour is more than beauty or stage presence. You can’t generate it just by having a wife who dresses like Jackie Kennedy. Glamour is a beautiful illusion—the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell—that promises to transcend ordinary life and make the ideal real. It depends on a special combination of mystery and grace. Too much information breaks the spell. So does obvious effort. That’s why glamour is so rare in contemporary politics. In post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, skeptical voters demand full disclosure of everything from candidates’ finances to their medical records, and spin-savvy accounts of backstage machinations dominate political coverage.

Obama’s glamour gives him a powerful political advantage. But it also poses special problems for the candidate and, if he succeeds, for the country.

Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combines youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. Like Kennedy, he grew up in unusual circumstances that distance him from ordinary American life. But while it was Kennedy’s wealth that set him apart, Obama’s mystery stems from an upbringing and ethnicity that defy conventional categories. He is glamorous because he is different, and his differences mirror his audience’s aspirations for the country.

Supporters project onto him the identity they long for in a president. He seems to embody racial harmony and international understanding. Some enthusiasts suggest that Obama’s name and face alone could be enough to calm America’s adversaries and restore the American dream. His glamour explains a campaign paradox: how a man who wrote a race-conscious coming-of-age memoir about his search for a black identity could be touted as a “post-racial” candidate. The allure of his origins obscured his own account of his inner life.

That’s one reason the revelation of his religious mentor’s racially charged sermons proved so potent. Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright revealed to white audiences that the senator is a self-defined black man who listens sympathetically to—and might even share—the angry grievances of other African Americans. His rhetoric may be inclusive, but he is not colorblind. He does not, by his mere existence, make America’s racial divisions disappear.

Obama’s glamour also accounts for some of his campaign’s other stumbles. Plenty of candidates attract supporters who disagree with them on some issues. Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the two glamorous presidents who shaped 20th-century American politics, Obama has left his political philosophy a mystery. His call for “a broad majority of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill—who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal” is not a statement of principles. It’s an invitation to the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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