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Obama, the Feel-Good President

Jamie has already alluded and linked to the big, sopping valentine Andrew Sullivan delivers to Barack Obama in next month's Atlantic. At the risk of affirming an official Shvitz position on this cover story, let me just say that it's … Read More

By / November 5, 2007

Jamie has already alluded and linked to the big, sopping valentine Andrew Sullivan delivers to Barack Obama in next month's Atlantic. At the risk of affirming an official Shvitz position on this cover story, let me just say that it's one of the most homiletic and trite pieces of political journalism I've seen in a long time.

One is told, repeatedly, that Obama is the cure for what ails America because he's post-Boomer, multiracial and has an evocative full name that will cause some pleasantly puzzled expressions in Lahore and Jakarta. The man is the message, in other words, and never you mind about his policies, experience or whether or not he'd make the best wartime commander-in-chief.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in. Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Now consider this hypothetical. Long before sacred terror afflicted these shores or most Americans had even heard the name Osama Bin Laden, a civil war was raging in the Islamic world that pitted the theologically pure against the reformist, the moderate and the apostate. We've seen how Abu Musab-al Zarqawi treated his co-religionists, who weren't up to snuff and were thus "polytheists" worse than Jews and Christians. In Darfur, a genocide that has been blessed and encouraged by Bin Laden, is currently underway to eliminate black Muslims whom their Arab Muslim killers refer to as "niggers." If we're to judge a candidate for high office on the basis of his gene pool, I can't think of a better rallying point for Al Qaeda than a "brown-skinned man whose father was an African" and "attended a majority-Muslim school," then came to America and discovered Jesus Christ. If you thought hope was powerful, wait until you see the audacity of dashed expectations.

Obama's heritage neither qualifies nor disqualifies him as president any more than Hillary's protean head of hair does her. And, as if to underscore the nonsense of his previous observation, Sullivan goes on to laud Obama for taking up his non-Muslim faith:

The best speech Obama has ever given was not his famous 2004 convention address, but a June 2007 speech in Connecticut. In it, he described his religious conversion:

One Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, he would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.

That would be the same Rev. Wright who traveled to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to gladhand Muammar Qaddafi, and who spoke of 9/11 with the same roosting chickens rhetoric that has now become cliche on the radical fringes. Obama's spiritual awakening comes in a distant second to his political opportunism, since he has an odd way of rewarding his favorite apostle and phrasemaker. He disinvited Wright from delivering a public invocation last February, on the exact date he announced his White House run. According to one of the Obama's spokesmen, "Senator Obama is proud of his pastor and his church, but because of the type of attention it was receiving on blogs and conservative talk shows, he decided to avoid having statements and beliefs being used out of context and forcing the entire church to defend itself." Well, why shouldn't a church led by a man of questionable motive and political affiliations not have to defend itself when it is openly credited with imbuing the divine spark in a possible leader of the free world? If Wright had such a impact that Obama took up religion because of him, isn't he deserving of something more than this calculated and weasely distancing? In short, how is Obama's religiosity any different, or any less meretricious, than that of the other candidates?

I don't doubt that Obama is the freshest national politician the U.S. has seen in a quite a while. I admire him a lot and — glib Skype conversations with my co-editor aside — I still haven't made up my mind not to vote for him. But what benefits him and the country least are the kinds of shallow and sanctimonious hosannas that depict him as a saintly figure. Sullivan is good enough to confess that he's suffering from a kind of electoral affirmative action impulse that esteems black religiosity for being just that. Fine. But when it comes time for the 101st Airborne to touch down on Waziristan, or garrisons to be shuffled in Iraq so as to maintain the hard-won security that's been established there, I suspect we'll need tougher metrics for assessing leadership than smiling white condescension.

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