Untested Savior: Barack Obama Answers Democrats' Longing for a Candidate Who Is above Politics, but He Would Probably Lead Them to Disaster in November

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THE NATION'S OBAMA swoon has eased, arrested by Hillary's swell of tears. But the force behind it gathers for resurgence. Its intensity is driven by yearnings as old as society itself, for a politics of the transcendent. Some intellectuals who fled Europe in the 1930s described a continent-wide "wholeness hunger"--a longing for release from corrupt, narrow, divisive parliamentary factions, a search for a more poetic, more binding politics.

There is some of that in the Obama fervor. In the wake of his Iowa triumph, one young light of the progressive blogosphere wrote, "Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of the word over flesh, over color, over despair." One Chicago newspaper reporter's book on Obama is proceeding with the working title The Saviour.

Obamaism responds to a specifically American need. In his lucid study of the candidate, A Bound Man, Shelby Steele notes that America has "has undergone a moral evolution away from racism so transformative that there is now something like a desire in the body politic to see a truly qualified black person in the White House." But no previous black candidate has been plausible. Obama is, passing without ambiguity the ability threshold for holding the highest office.

In the age of affirmative action, attending Harvard as a black would not suffice. Winning the editorship of the Harvard Law Review--a position, Steele notes tersely, "gained through competition rather than through the suspension of competition"--most emphatically does. And Obama's political talent mitigates his experience deficit. He bests his rivals at responding to tedious political questions with a nuanced or memorable phrase. He was correct about the Iraq War from day one. He can write. The autobiographical Dreams From My Father, with its vivid portraits and sardonic self-awareness, is a literary accomplishment no contemporary senator could match. Again, Steele: "The point is that Obama has separated himself from the deadly stigmas of black inferiority and white paternalism. This does not mean that people won't consider his race in some way as they ponder his candidacy. It only means they can consider his candidacy without feeling guilted, intimidated, or otherwise manipulated by his race." Not only is he plausible, his candidacy implicitly promises the healing of America's oldest wound.

National polls show Obama running as well or better than Clinton in match-ups against Republicans. The conventional pundit wisdom is that while a dissolving GOP coalition could be re-united against Hillary, Obama would have greater appeal to independents and restless Republicans. Such prognoses come not only from progressives, happy to tell you that leading Republicans have no idea how to run against a black candidate, but from conservatives, too. David Brooks has touted Obama's moderate, consensus-seeking character in language so glowing some liberals interpreted it as a prelude to endorsement.

There is another opinion about this, however. It is held by some traditional conservatives who oppose Bush's Iraq and Iran policies, those most open to supporting a Democrat if the Republicans, as seems likely, promise a foreign policy of more of the same. In a nutshell, this view is that Hillary would face a difficult race, but would probably prevail, as could have Edwards or Joe Biden or a fairly generic Democrat in a year when the Dems have a major tailwind. Obama would be their weakest candidate, who could lead his party into an electoral disaster.

This is not because of Obama's race, which--other factors held equal--probably attracts more voters than it puts off. The weakness is the other major quality that progressive intellectuals find appealing in him: his cosmopolitanism, his relative unrootedness, the sense that he is harbinger not only of a new America where race doesn't matter but of a globalized world where national sentiment is on the way out. …