By Jefferson Flanders

Who is Barack Obama?

It seems that America’s mainstream news organizations have spent much of the first two months of 2008 trying to answer that question about the junior Senator from Illinois, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Obama’s intriguing life story has produced countless stories to date, and now reporters and commentators are trying to dig a little deeper and to place his sudden appeal (Obama-mania) in context. This latest journalistic examination has featured explanations of how Obama resembles (or doesn’t resemble) transformative cultural and political figures from the past. (Many of these compare-and-contrast stories have been downright silly.)

Obama has acknowledged that he is a bit of a blank screen, where “people of widely different views project what they want to hear.” The journalistic comparisons have followed that pattern. Many of them have been flattering; the Illinois Senator has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Tiger Woods. He has also been compared, less positively, to less popular figures, including Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, George W. Bush (a jab from Senator Hillary Clinton) and Jesse Jackson (a jab from former President Bill Clinton), and even to the sinister cult figure Jim Jones.

What is going on here? Some of it is the human need to pigeon-hole people, to place them in a given category, whether positive or negative. Journalists are quite prone to this sort of categorizing and developing a frame for the candidate (to use an academic term) and establishing a narrative about a given campaign.

Obama, the “blank screen”, has proven somewhat resistant to this framing process. Is he an undistinguished novice with no executive experience who shies away from taking strong political stances and relies on empty rhetoric? Or is he a transformative figure whose oratory has captured the hearts and minds of Americans and who represents a post-partisan, post-racial political future? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

I’d argue that journalists should refrain from making comparisons, and focus instead on more substantive questions. For example, how about challenging Obama (and Senators Clinton and McCain) to answer the questions raised on the op-ed page of the New York Times before the Ohio Democratic presidential debate? I’d rather know how Obama plans to respond to these (especially the national security questions posed by the Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage) than be subjected to more hype about how he resembles the Kennedy brothers.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Be Sociable, Share!