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The New York Sun


"Obambi" Is Working It

February 22, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Lately pundits' speculations about Barack Obama's future are historical curios after two weeks.

Whites won't vote for him? Iowa. Then after Hillary Clinton took New Hampshire, the going wisdom was that whites would only vote for him in the open format of caucuses. So much for that one. Obamamania will only take hold among the educated? Tell that to the white collar workers who just helped him take Wisconsin.

Just wait till "Obambi," as Maureen Dowd has it, encounters the mudslinging? The mud doesn't stick: those who throw it are treated as if they shot at Bambi himself.

These predictions have failed because they are based on outdated perspectives. As is the latest slam, that his inspirational but low-content speeches about hope and "Yes, we can" show that Mr. Obama is all dazzle, not understanding the challenges he would face in the White House.

Another old standby: the emperor with no clothes.

But look where giving speeches about policy positions has gotten Hillary Clinton. Not long ago, David Brooks was tsktsking about how dull a policy talk was that Mr. Obama gave.

Senator Obama once thought wonky speeches would get him into office, when he first made a run for the Illinois statehouse. His opponent, Bobby Rush, who knows how to get audiences in their kishkes, trounced him.

Since then, Mr. Obama has learned that moving an electorate requires something more than showing that you are knowledgeable. Most people vote with their gut. Most Americans do not subscribe to Foreign Affairs and are not political blog addicts. To get elected, you have to make voters like you. Superficial appeal is key. Warren Harding was elected partly because women found him pleasant to look at. Richard Nixon lost his 1960 debates with John F. Kennedy despite his solid command of policy, because he was poorly shaven and sweated a lot. In the past 100 years, only four presidents have been shorter than the opponents they beat.

Ecce, therefore, Mr. Obama rendering his speeches in a black preacherly cadence, with short sentences and melodic intonation. This way of speaking makes a decisive impression on Americans, including white ones. In an era when Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream" speech is in the mental i-Pod of us all and most of hip hop's buyers are white, this is, in fact, the most narcotic genre of speechmaking possible.

For someone who can pull it off, it is a secret weapon. That weapon has dealt a sucker punch to Mr. Obama's more seasoned opponent. Mr. Obama has two arrows in his quiver: a command of policy, to be sure, but also an ability to stir the guts of mass audiences. Mrs. Clinton possesses only the former, and now sputters on the ropes.

This is where Mr. Obama would be if he had stuck to getting down to cases in his speeches, especially given Mrs. Clinton's initial advantage in name recognition. Why should he put himself at even the slightest risk of winding up today's version of Adlai Stevenson?

The idea that Mr. Obama is unaware of the challenges that await him is absurd. He has encountered them over years' time in the Senate and has even complained about how hard it is to get things done there. The man was a law professor, for goodness sake.

Nor is he cynical in going for the gut on the stump instead of lecturing audiences the way Woodrow Wilson did in presenting his case for the League of Nations. He'd be cynical if he only wanted to be president in order to line his pockets. Instead, he gives all signs of wanting to be the best president he could be, with plenty of concrete plans. They're on his Web site. He even talks about them here and there. But especially with a fellow policy wonk like Mrs. Clinton as his opponent, Mr. Obama could not get the nomination if he stuck to just showing how smart he is. He needed a secret weapon. Unlike John Edwards, he had one. He's using it.

To dismiss Mr. Obama as all heat and no light is lazy and forced, just like Maureen Dowd's clumsy "Obambi" epithet. Ideally, candidates for president would be assessed solely on their command of the issues. But when has that ever been the case? Or, why would we expect Mr. Obama to pretend that it ever has—and let Hillary Clinton beat him?

We all enjoy feeling like we know the score. But it's time to admit that the Obama phenomenon is one time when we haven't seen it all before. "Obambi" is working it. Many think of that as news—which is odd for anyone who also understands that the man is seeking to beat oldguard competition and win the presidency.

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