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The New York Sun


Underestimating Obama

September 18, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Boyish charm Senator Obama sits waiting to speak at a rally in Elko, Nev., yesterday.

I'm not with it. Once again, Mr. Obama is being underestimated even by people who worship him. Think about it. Polls are nice, but quite a bit of election history is about their often fitful relationship to what actually happens. What we do know is that most people are not political junkies and only decide their vote at the last minute. This is far from the last minute.

Plus, vice presidential candidates do not determine elections. Even when they have been charismatic and/or interesting, it is impossible to imagine that they determined the presidential candidate's victory—think about Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. And the taller candidate usually wins. John Kerry was an exception, but we will all agree that Mr. Obama has assorted plusses over him.

And crucially, we have debates coming. Cassandras about Mr. Obama talk as if all we had left until November was cable channel dust-ups over nonsense.

Or, one is supposed to mutter about how Mr. Obama has been less effective in debates than when speaking alone. Doubtless something was especially off in his Saddleback encounter: he played the professor examining all sides while Mr. McCain came off as the man with the vision thing.

But what is it with this idea that what we have seen in Mr. Obama is what we will always get? Whence the conviction that he has not been amply informed that he needs to punch up his speaking skills in the debate setting? And where is the coherency in an assumption—or even a fear—that someone so gifted with words would not be up to the task? It's as if he were training in jai alai or the sitar.

Again and again Barack Obama confounds the expectations of people speaking from what they regard as informed wisdom. Iowa. New Hampshire, where whites did not vote for Hillary Clinton after claiming to be for him. Getting past the Reverend Wright imbroglio and winning the nomination.

But here we are, once again supposing that this is a man who cannot cope, cannot really cut the mustard. The Obambi myth never dies—even among his fans.

Barack Obama's supporters seem to see him less as a living, breathing human being than as some kind of eminence, an embodiment of what they want and their fantasies. But eminence and fantasies are wispy, delicate things. Is that why people are always so ready to write Mr. Obama off the minute things are less than perfect?

Is it that people, black and white, deep down see blackness as weakness on some level? Sorry, but we have to at least consider it.

Or is it that he is thin and has a kid-like smile? I do think this plays a part. There is an extent to which he comes off as somewhat neonate because of accidents of his physiognomy. Tupac Shakur, for example, would not be as iconic a rapper if he had been taller and bulkier, had a full head of hair, and did not have large eyes. He brought out a parental instinct in men and women, and so does Mr. Obama.

It's time for people to remember that Barack Obama is not a wisp, and that his weight and how his facial muscles happen to configure around his teeth when he smiles are genetic accidents, not the man himself. He is a human being, and one who has amply demonstrated that he is in this not to symbolize our private daydreams, but to run America. He wants to win.

Of course the race is close. Barack Obama is a weird thing, as he knows; he still needs to connect to some. Many can't understand why he hasn't taken it in a walk—but that hope was based on policy issues most of the electorate do not vote on the basis of.

But this just means basing hope on realer premises. Mr. McCain can get some coaching, but he will never be an orator. Mr. Obama is already an orator. Why is it so hard to imagine an orator learning how to use language in a different way, as if he would be as hobbled in this task as Mr. McCain would be?

I highly suspect that in the books on this Obama adventure, the chapter on September 2008 will be the one where Barack Obama is once again inaccurately underestimated for reasons rooted less in the essence of the man than in the essence of us.

Original Source:



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