E. J. Dionne looks at the two different images of Barack Obama on the campaign trail among Democrats, but unwittingly highlights the basic problem of Obama’s candidacy. Dionne casts the two images as echoes of either John F. Kennedy or Adlai Stevenson, meaning one successful at connecting with the general electorate and one seen as an out-of-touch intellectual. The problem is that Obama actually doesn’t yet measure up to either man:
The result of the 2008 election may come down to how voters decide to define Barack Obama. Is he Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy? Is he a detached former law review editor or a passionate agent of change? Is he an upscale reformer focused on process or a populist who will turn Washington and the country around?
One of the central lessons of the Pennsylvania primary campaign is that Obama’s personality is now far more important than either Hillary Clinton‘s or John McCain‘s. That’s true not only because voters have a longer history with Clinton and McCain but also because so much of the energy and novelty of 2008 is the product of Obama’s rapid breakthrough to wide acclaim.
As a result, almost all of the turns in this contest have been driven by how Obama presented himself and how voters perceived him.
When Obama is in control of his own image, his moments of detachment and irony are celebrated as bearing remarkable similarities to those of the cool, shrewd and confident JFK, who won in 1960. When doubts about Obama creep in, those same characteristics are disparaged for resembling the diffidence and distance of Stevenson, who lost in 1952 and 1956.
It’s a handy analogy, but hardly analogous to Barack Obama. By the time JFK ran for President, he had served 14 years in Congress and had pursued high-profile legislative and oversight efforts. Stevenson had been governor of Illinois for a four-year term, as well as having worked in various executive-branch posts. Between 1952 and his second run in 1956, Stevenson had also traveled the world and had extensive talks with world leaders, while writing travelogues for Life.
In comparison, Obama appears even more callow. He has not traveled widely, as Stevenson (and Hillary Clinton and John McCain did). He has no executive experience at all. Obama has all of three years in Congress, completely undistinguished, following a forgettable seven-year stint in the Illinois state senate where his most notable accomplishment was dodging tough issues by voting “present”.
The comparison to either JFK or Stevenson does Obama no favors. In fairness, the only comparison Dionne makes is completely superficial, which perfectly describes Obama and his campaign. It’s all hope and change, and a certain resentment when having to field questions on tougher subjects, such as capital-gains tax rates. The cancellation of the North Carolina debate shows this rather clearly; now that the media has decided to start asking tough questions, Obama prefers to eat his waffles in peace.
Dionne writes that “fighters usually beat professors”. Substance usually prevails over superficiality, too. If the Democrats don’t learn that in time for the nomination, then they’ll likely learn it in the general election, when it becomes apparent that not only is Obama no JFK, he’s not even a Stevenson.
Update: Bruce Kesler isn’t buying the analogy, either.