The Obama Phenomenon

(Over the past few weeks, as interest has grown in the 2008 U.S. presidential contest, I’ve been asked by friends across the Arab world for my opinion on Barack Obama. Could I explain the phenomenon they are seeing on television? Can he win? Here is my response.)

Watching Barack Obama since he first burst onto the national scene with his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, through his spectacular three-state tour de force last week with Oprah Winfrey, it is clear that the Obama phenomenon requires both reflection and understanding.

It appears from the excitement he generates that Barack has tapped into a deep vein in the contemporary American psyche. While it is always useful to parse out the positions he has taken on critical issues, and even to weigh in the balance the importance of "experience" versus "judgment," or "change" versus "Washington" – these being the matters discussed by the candidates – they, alone, do not explain the phenomenon we are witnessing. Something more profound is occurring in this election. And it appears to be wrapped up in the person of Barack Obama, himself.


It was over a year ago that my daughter Sarah spoke to me of her enthusiasm for Barack’s still fledgling candidacy. Sarah is a graphic designer and a mother, sensitive and thoughtful about the issues of the day. But like many, she had grown weary of politics and wary of politicians.

She had heard Barack Obama speak and was moved by what she described as his authenticity and clarity. He did not appear to her to be typical. His call for a new approach to politics appealed to her. Quite simply, she said, "He gives me hope."

"Your generation," she continued, "had many such figures," mentioning the Kennedys and Dr. King. "We have not. I want to believe he can make a difference."

Sarah’s observations prefigured the themes that the Obama campaign would capture with their ubiquitous signs reading "Change you can believe in" and the simple "Hope" buttons worn by supporters.


I saw Barack Obama’s appeal on display the day he delivered his maiden campaign address before the Democratic National Committee in February of 2007. The other candidates had each delivered their speeches as if cut from the same cloth: a litany of issues and personal promises punctuated by a series of applause lines. When Obama’s turn came, he began quietly and thoughtfully, to deliver a discourse on the cynicism that has infected our politics and the need to awaken hope in the electorate that can mobilize the consensus needed to make real change.

As he continued, I looked around the room (which was so quiet you could have heard the proverbial pin drop) and saw something intriguing in the faces of the 600 or so assembled party leaders. Obama was showing respect for them, and they were respectfully listening and reflecting. Interestingly, he used the word "I" a mere handful of times in that address – compared to the more than two dozen times it was used by each of his competitors.

When he finished, the applause was thunderous.


Reading Obama’s autobiography "Dreams from My Father" helps, in part, to explain the man and the response he is capable of eliciting. Written at 34 (he is 46 now), more than simply telling his story, "Dreams" is an exercise in self-discovery. In it, he works through the many issues of his complex life trajectory, discovering the meaning of his identity, the role of family and community, and the legacy he inherited from both his mother and his "absent" father.

If he appears at peace with himself, self-possessed and able to "ring true" (to borrow Andre Gide’s phrase) it is because, to a remarkable degree, he is. And it appears that it is that very quality that resonates. Watching him on stage, in a crowd, or engaged in a conversation of substance, he looks at ease, unruffled and comfortable, alternately listening and engaging.

In the grueling and sometimes destructive sport of campaign politics, where candidates subject themselves to what are arguably the most brutal of endurance tests (always on call, always needing to be personable and informed, all the while being scrutinized and dissected), Barack Obama appears to remain cool and in control.


And then there is the matter of race. All of the questions about "will white America vote for him?" or "is he black enough?" point to a single reality, which is that race remains a defining issue in American life.

But then there was the scene of Obama announcing his candidacy on a bitter cold day in Springfield, Illinois before an overwhelmingly white audience of thousands who braved the weather to cheer their state’s "favorite son." Or Barack and Oprah one day in Des Moines, Iowa, again before a largely white audience of 18,500, and then the next day before a mixed race audience of 29,500 in Columbia, South Carolina. And in both places they generated the same reaction, the same enthusiasm, the same hope.

To say, as some have, that Barack Obama transcends race, like Tiger Woods, misses the point. Rather, it appears, he embodies the matter of race and helps to reconcile the divide in his person and message.


Finally, the context is important to consider. After eight largely successful, but embattled and exhausting years, the Clinton Administration gave way to George Bush and seven years of lost opportunities and failed leadership. All of this has left many Americans bitter and cynical. Preying off of fear, anger and division has taken a toll and damaged the spirit of the body politic. Into this arena Barack Obama has issued a call in a different voice – an appeal to the angels of our better selves coupled with the optimism and conviction that change can come. It is this voice my Sarah, and so many others, have heard.

Can he win? His polling numbers are improving daily. In the end, however, the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will answer that question in January. But is he real, and does the movement he has inspired matter? The answer to that is self-evidently yes.