Obama's Altitude Sickness
The Democrats are in a panic. In a presidential race that is impossible to lose, they are behind. Obama devotees are frantically giving advice. Tom Friedman tells him to "start slamming down some phones." Camille Paglia suggests, "be boring!"
Meanwhile, a posse of Democratic lawyers, mainstream reporters, lefty bloggers and various other Obamaphiles are scouring the vast tundra of Alaska for something, anything, to bring down Sarah Palin: her daughter's pregnancy, her ex-brother-in-law problem, her $60 per diem, and now her religion. (CNN reports -- news flash! -- that she apparently has never spoken in tongues.) Not since Henry II asked if no one would rid him of his turbulent priest have so many so urgently volunteered for duty.
But Palin is not just a problem for Obama. She is also a symptom of what ails him. Before Palin, Obama was the ultimate celebrity candidate. For no presidential nominee in living memory had the gap between adulation and achievement been so great. Which is why McCain's Paris Hilton ads struck such a nerve. Obama's meteoric rise was based not on issues -- there was not a dime's worth of difference between him and Hillary on issues -- but on narrative, on eloquence, on charisma.
The unease at the Denver convention, the feeling of buyer's remorse, was the Democrats' realization that the arc of Obama's celebrity had peaked -- and had now entered a period of its steepest decline. That Palin could so instantly steal the celebrity spotlight is a reflection of that decline.
It was inevitable. Obama had managed to stay aloft for four full years. But no one can levitate forever.
Five speeches map Obama's trajectory.
Obama burst into celebrityhood with his brilliant and moving 2004 Democratic convention speech (#1). It turned an obscure state senator into a national figure and legitimate presidential candidate.
His next and highest moment (#2) was the night of his Iowa caucus victory when he gave an equally stirring speech of the highest tones that dazzled a national audience just tuning in.
The problem is that Obama began believing in his own magical powers -- the chants, the swoons, the "we are the ones" self-infatuation. Like Ronald Reagan, he was leading a movement, but one entirely driven by personality. Reagan's revolution was rooted in concrete political ideas (supply-side economics, welfare-state deregulation, national strength) that transcended one man. For Obama's movement, the man is the transcendence.
Which gave the Obama campaign a cult-like tinge. With every primary and every repetition of the high-flown, self-referential rhetoric, the campaign's insubstantiality became clear. By the time it was repeated yet again on the night of the last primary (#3), the tropes were tired and flat. To top himself, Obama had to reach. Hence his triumphal declaration that history would note that night, his victory, his ascension, as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
Clang. But Obama heard only the cheers of the invited crowd. Not yet seeing how the pseudo-messianism was wearing thin, he did Berlin (#4) and finally jumped the shark. That grandiloquent proclamation of universalist puffery popped the bubble. The grandiosity had become bizarre.
From there it was but a short step to Paris Hilton. Finally, the Obama people understood. Which is why the next data point (#5) is so different. Obama's Denver acceptance speech was deliberately pedestrian, State-of-the-Union-ish, programmatic and only briefly (that lovely coda recalling the March on Washington) lyrical.
The problem, however, was that Obama had announced the Invesco Field setting for the speech during the pre-Berlin flush of hubris. They were stuck with the Greek columns, the circus atmosphere, the rock star fireworks farewell -- as opposed to the warmer, traditional, balloon-filled convention-hall hug-a-thon. The incongruity between text and context was apparent. Obama was trying to make himself ordinary -- and serious -- but could hardly remember how.
One star fades, another is born. The very next morning McCain picks Sarah Palin and a new celebrity is launched. And in the celebrity game, novelty is trump. With her narrative, her persona, her charisma carrying the McCain campaign to places it has never been and by all logic has no right to be, she's pulling an Obama.
But her job is easier. She only has to remain airborne for seven more weeks. Obama maintained altitude for an astonishing four years. In politics, as in all games, however, it's the finish that counts.