E. J. Dionne: Is Obama JFK or Adlai Stevenson?





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....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list