Like any candidate, Obama of course has position papers on specific issues. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist. As the NAFTA flap demonstrates, his supporters can’t even decide what the candidate really thinks about free trade. His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus—or that he’s a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support.
Where optimists fill in mystery with their hopes, however, pessimists project their fears. The flip side of glamour is horror: the vampire, the con man, the femme fatale, the double agent. These glamorous archetypes remind us of how easy it is to succumb to desire and manipulation. What, ask his opponents, is Obama hiding?
The same exotic distance that makes the candidate compelling to supporters fosters the persistent rumors that he’s a secret Muslim and, anonymous sources hint darkly, an enemy of the United States. More mundanely, the apparent effortlessness of his political career—the grace with which he seems to rise above ordinary politics—makes it harder for him to shrug off the unsavory allies who come with a career in Chicago, from indicted developer Tony Rezko to antigay preacher Rev. James Meeks. They spoil the fantasy.
To rely on illusions is to risk disillusionment. If Obama the dream candidate becomes Obama the real president, he’ll be forced to pick sides, make compromises, and turn “hope” and “change” into policies some people like and some people don’t. Or, like the movie star governor of California, he might choose instead to preserve his glamour by letting others set the agenda. Either way, his face won’t make America’s worries disappear, and his cool, polite manner won’t eliminate political disagreements. Some of his supporters will feel disappointed, even betrayed. The result could be a backlash, heightened partisan conflict, and a failed presidency. George W. Bush ran as a uniter, and Jimmy Carter promised national renewal.
Obama must have an inkling of these perils. He knows glamour better than most people, having grown up enchanted with the glamorized image of his distant father, an image shaped by his mother’s stories and his own yearnings. “The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader—my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image,” he writes in Dreams from My Father. That ideal shaped Obama’s aspirations and character. “It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all of the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.”
That image was false. Despite his early promise, Obama’s father died a bitter, lonely minor bureaucrat, leaving a fractured family to fight over his tiny estate. “All my life,” concluded the young Obama when he learned the truth, “I had been wrestling with nothing more than a ghost!” By then, however, the glamour had done its work, providing meaning and purpose to the son’s formative years. At the risk of bitter disillusionment, perhaps Obama hopes to do for the country what his father’s image did for him: provide a noble lie that tricks us into self-improvement.