In the past two weeks, Barack Obama has not looked like his familiar self on the campaign trail. The grand, inspirational calls to hope before large crowds have grown less frequent, and a new kind of Obama performance has debuted: the defensive, stammering press conference in which the candidate dodges a few hard questions and rushes off.
Two names from Obama's past have been chiefly responsible for this changed tone and feel: Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright. Rezko, the indicted Chicago businessman and longtime Obama fundraiser, highlights Obama's rather murky political beginnings. Any politician who rises as quickly as Obama did on the South Side of Chicago is bound to have made some questionable friends along the way, and the Rezko affair has certainly started some people in the press and the political world wondering what else might lurk undiscovered in the senator's past.
Meanwhile Wright, the pastor of Obama's Chicago church, highlights the continuing mystery of Obama's basic ideology. Is he the cool and level-headed post-political politician who addresses every difficult issue by first expounding on how everyone, on all sides, has a point? Or is he a radical liberal who nods from the pews as his pastor leads the congregation in a chorus of “God damn America,” insists that the September 11 attacks were “chickens . . . coming home to roost,” and dubs the country “The US of KKK A”? Obama's past fidelity to Wright has been unequivocal. The senator and his wife — who were married by Wright and had their children baptized by him — gave Wright's church more than $20,000 in donations in 2006 alone. And as Obama made clear in his speech on the subject in Philadelphia this week, he surely had a sense of Wright's strong views.
Just what the Wright and Rezko affairs actually tell us about Obama's past and his views is hard to discern at this point. But for Democrats, the greatest worry must involve not the substance of either scandal, but the fact that Obama's links to these controversies are only now emerging in full. What further unpleasant surprises await? What if this new and less appealing Obama is the real one?
The fact is, the Democratic party may be about to hitch its wagon to a remarkably unknown star, without much sense of what troubles may lie in his past — and the party's future.
The risks of running a relative unknown can be great. In 1988, Michael Dukakis seemed to offer real promise, as far as Washington Democrats could tell. He was a successful governor with an interesting life story, intelligent and well spoken, and even possessed of ethnic and blue-collar credentials. Only too late did they learn that they had nominated a thoroughly stereotypical, dogmatic liberal, and a boring one to boot.
In 2000, George W. Bush was also not a well-known quantity, and in the week before the election, with the polls looking up, word suddenly emerged of a drunk-driving charge he had never divulged. Bush's support suffered, and the country was left with the Florida debacle in which Bush barely eked out an Electoral College win in a way that hung a question mark over the start of his presidency.
Obama actually combines these two risks of the unknown. He is, like Dukakis, a standard-issue liberal with no interesting exceptions to speak of, though the public does not yet realize it. And he has, like George W. Bush, done some things he shouldn't have (and, evidently, associated with people voters wouldn't much like), which are only slowly emerging over the course of the campaign.
But Obama might face an even greater problem. While he certainly is not well-known to voters, neither is he an unfamiliar presence in the way Bush and Dukakis were when they were nominated. Over the past year, after all, he has become something of a media superstar and built a presence in the quarters of our culture inhabited by ordinary voters, not just political junkies — that is, people who may have paid virtually no attention to the candidates until much later in previous election cycles, but who have already seen a lot of Obama this year. For these voters, learning more about Obama will not only be disconcerting, it will be disillusioning, which is far worse. Obama's trouble is not only that people know little about him, but also that much of what they know is not true.
The candidate of hope, idealism, and unity will be hurt more than most candidates would be by the “revelation” that as a Democratic senator he voted with the Democrats just about all the time. The candidate of getting beyond divisive issues will be damaged by details of what he has said about abortion, for instance. The candidate of a new kind of politics could look like a hypocrite as Americans learn more about his South Side connections. The candidate of post-racial America will have to do much more than simply say he had no idea his longtime pastor was an anti-American race baiter.
The “Obama-mania” of this past fall and winter was bound to be impossible to sustain, and we have already begun to see it lose its shine. It has, of course, helped Obama get within arm's reach of the Democratic nomination, and it will likely get him across the finish line. But in the general election, as the real Obama — for good and bad — comes to be better known, the heights he reached these last few months may well prove very costly. Obama will have a lot going for him, to be sure, and this remains a good year for the Democrats. But to the extent that both he and John McCain will introduce themselves to voters anew this summer and fall, Obama has much more to lose than McCain, and much less to gain.
In fact, McCain is in some respects in the opposite position. He will be hurt by some of what voters will learn about him; he will seem surprisingly old to people who haven't seen him much, for instance, and word of his temper will certainly get out. But what voters don't know about him is, on the whole, better for him than what they do know. Everyone has a sense that McCain comported himself with dignity as a prisoner of war, but the full extent and details of his story will deeply impress the American public. Everyone knows that he comes from a military family and believes in service, but when voters learn that he has two sons in harm's way in the military, they will think even better of him.
Obama's reintroduction will be much more difficult and risky. And for Democrats, the unknowns in that process must be the most frightening prospect. What further surprises lurk in Obama's little-known personal history? The last few weeks have made that question suddenly crucial.