At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a lanky state senator from Illinois took the stage to deliver the keynote address. Many watching that night wondered why a mere state legislator, unknown to the rest of the country, was given such a prominent place in the national spotlight, but the answer soon became self-evident. He oozed charisma, capability and – in a time of political division – he preached unity. He electrified the audience with eloquent prose and fed them something long savored in politics – integrity. With a clap of thunder we were introduced to Barack Obama, and it was love at first sight.
Never before has a single speech done so much for someone’s career: Since that night, Democrats aching for leadership have called for Obama’s presidential candidacy. At first the calls were made jokingly, but now, as the primary race approaches, a rapturous mixture of hope and desperation follows Obama, pressuring him to make a serious run.
Time magazine columnist Joe Klein called Obama “a sudden preternatural event inspiring awe and ecstasy.” Ecstasy is probably a good word for Barack Obama. He represents something otherworldly, a bewildering delight that excites us in a way that defies full comprehension. However, implicit in ecstasy is always an element of fantasy; any moment of ecstasy is accompanied by the mental projection of something else.
That is what our high presidential hopes for Obama amount to right now – fantasy. We don’t yet know what kind of politician he will make. Frustrated with curiosity and anticipation, the hype surrounding Obama is, at this point, mere masturbation on our part: It is us reveling in Obama daydreams while we impatiently wait for the real thing. One day he might be that politician of our dreams, but if we rush him, we’ll only be disappointed.
Democrats are impetuous lovers. Like a teenager with a crush, we so often become infatuated with a candidate, insisting that it’s true love. Then after months of dotting the i’s in their name with little hearts, we are left heartbroken after prom.
But we’re the ones pushing to take our relationship with Obama to the next level, not the other way around.
Many argue that now is the time for Obama to run for president while he has the greatest appeal on the market. Analysts advise he should take advantage of this moment while he is still the prettiest belle at the ball, before his political countenance is marred by a possbily compromising senatorial voting record. Yet if four or eight more years in the Senate do enough to damage his credibility and integrity, then he isn’t the kind of politician we thought he was anyway.
But what can be more damaging to a pristine political persona than a presidential campaign? At least in the Senate, there’s anonymity in numbers. In a presidential race, your opponent’s barbs amplify your political weaknesses. Without a certain national political savvy, career-ending mistakes can occur. If Obama were to lose such a race, then we will have spent what could be a great political force way too early.
After such failure, his innocence will be lost, as will his luster of infallibility. Obama only gets one chance to take advantage of the romance surrounding him. After that, he’ll be just another Democrat.
As Obama enters the maturation of his political career, he should be careful not to rush the decision of a presidential bid. Losing his presidential virginity too soon will only embitter and ruin his chances for true political greatness later. He needs to practice and gain some experience before going all the way.
Obama is the real deal, and our high hopes for him can be fulfilled. He takes a role of bold leadership on the important issue of race when other politicians hide from it. He manages to approach the Iraq question with both realism and conviction. He even has the gravitas to admit to using marijuana and cocaine in his book without it becoming a political liability.
As he goes through his political puberty, the last thing Obama should do is to blend in with the rest of the Beltway. I hope he continues to be a beacon for visions of the future and to craft his natural leadership abilities. But if we force him into this situation before he is ready, it’ll be over before we really know what we have. We will only be left feeling crestfallen and unsatisfied. Our Prince Charming will evolve into just another addition to our list of bad relationships.
Sam Butler can be reached at email@example.com.