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Which Obama Will They See?

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. -- 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.

At its most exciting moments, Obama's campaign has been compared to the great crusades for change in our country's history. His appeal to African Americans and the young of all races has led enthusiasts to see his effort as the reincarnation of Robert F. Kennedy's brief, glorious and tragic 1968 run for the presidency.

But when Obama falls into the long pauses he is sometimes given to in debate, the wordy answers he periodically offers to questions, or the visible impatience he exhibits toward the less-elevating aspects of politics, he seems far more the law review editor, the professor, the classic good-government guy whose reach to society's hard-pressed is limited.

Occasionally, these very different Obamas show up at the same time. More precisely, the same words can be heard as ratifying either version of his story, depending on the assumptions a listener brings to them.

At a campaign rally here on Saturday during a whistle-stop tour across southeastern Pennsylvania, Obama laced into Clinton for "the say-anything, do-anything style of politics that has become the habit in Washington." Obama insisted he was "not going to play the same old politics" and, with relish, gave this description of Clinton's attacks on him: "She's got the kitchen sink flying, the china flying, the buffet is coming at me."

Without mentioning last week's ABC News debate, much assailed for becoming a staging point for one attack on Obama after another, the candidate was clearly courting a backlash against "a politics that's all about tearing each other down." And he continued to shred Clinton for accepting contributions from lobbyists. Noting that Clinton once said that lobbyists simply represent people with interests before the government, Obama declared, to laughter, "I don't know how many of you have a lobbyist in Washington."

Seen by Obama's critics, this is a discourse about process rather than problems. It seems to highlight procedural reform, not the delivery of concrete benefits to people who need them. But his enthusiasts see his words as those of the only candidate who can break with Washington's bad habits, its bitter partisan polarization and the nation's festering divisions, particularly those divisions around race and class.

In separate interviews, the Democratic candidates' two leading local supporters cast the choice almost exactly this way. Gov. Ed Rendell, a staunch Clinton advocate, explicitly compared Obama to Stevenson and then contrasted the diffidence implicit in the metaphor to Clinton's own image.

"Her campaign has been spotty at best," Rendell said, "but the one thing they've done a good job at, and in many ways Hillary deserves credit for this, is portraying her as a fighter." Fighters usually beat law professors.

Yet Sen. Bob Casey, who introduced Obama here as "the one national leader who can bring our country together and begin to change the future," said he was astonished at the energy Obama has created in such a short time and the "ever-flowing stream" of loyalists who have shown up at his events, even in the smallest Pennsylvania towns. Hope usually beats the status quo.

The decision today in Pennsylvania is less a choice between Clinton and Obama than a referendum on which Obama voters wish to see. This may define the country's verdict in November as well.

postchat@aol.com


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