Usually, reporters assigned to candidates get to know them all too well. They spend months traveling with the candidate in close quarters, see them more often than the candidate’s families, and record all of the significant events of each and every day. By the end of the campaign, a certain familiarity gets established, and these beat reporters often wind up writing extensive analyses and even books about their experience and the person behind the campaign hype.
According to Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times, absolutely none of that is true about Barack Obama. Not only has he not interacted much with the press at all, Obama turns out to be …. well, rather dull and uninteresting:
After Clinton’s defeat in the Iowa caucuses, she decided she needed an emergency reinvention. She began mixing with reporters, sipping a glass of wine late at night in the aisle of her campaign plane and unburdening herself about the state of the race. As her prospects dimmed, her accessibility grew. Sometimes she was off the record, but you can’t say she wasn’t fun.
Not so with Obama. One of the striking ironies is that a man who draws tens of thousands of people to his rallies, whose charisma is likened to that of John F. Kennedy, can be sort of a bore.
Discipline is essential for candidates who want to drive home a consistent message, or avoid the self-sabotage that comes with a careless answer. A steely perseverance helps explain why Obama at this point stands a better than even chance of becoming the 44th president. But when you’re exposed to the guy 18 hours a day, it’s a bit maddening. You want him to loosen up.
I’ve watched Obama demonstrate a soccer kick to his daughter in Chicago; devour a cheesesteak in Philly; navigate a roller rink in Indiana; drive a bumper car; and catapult 125 feet in the air on an amusement-park ride called “Big Ben.” He’s done it all with dogged professionalism, but with little show of spontaneity. After all this time with him, I still can’t say with certainty who he is.
A couple of points should be made. Message discipline is even more critical than ever; Joe the Plumber proved that point. Anything said by a candidate these days gets shot around the world within seconds, and it’s trapped in YouTube amber forever. Forty years ago, politicians could get away with pandering to both Tampa Bay Rays fans and Phillies backers, for a lighter example, because no one would report it. Those days are gone, and the campaigns of both Obama and John McCain reflect this.
McCain, though, is a known quantity. He has a long record of national service, a history of leadership on difficult issues, and voters know him. Obama has little record of any kind. Even in Illinois, he voted “present” rather than create a reviewable record. He is a cipher to most voters, an eloquent blank screen on which people can project their own desires and aspirations.
After two years on the campaign trail, in the most grueling presidential contest in American history, we are no closer to getting clear answers. Nicholas concludes that the reporters can’t help:
First Clinton, then John McCain made the argument that Obama is someone we don’t really know. Obama’s supporters counter that we have his record in the U.S. and Illinois senates, two memoirs that reveal his inner thinking and a vast trove of public speaking. Ironically, those of us who were sent out to take his measure in person can’t offer much help in answering who he is, or if he is ready. The barriers set in place between us and him were just too great.
Well, who set those barriers, and why? Isn’t it incumbent on Nick the New Guy to make himself more transparent, and not less? Shouldn’t the candidate who has so little experience on the skills necessary for the presidency — executive, military, and diplomatic — share more of himself to make the sale with voters? If Obama sets barriers between himself and voters, it can only be because more transparency would demonstrate a lack of fitness for the job.