I imagine the blogosphere will be all a-twitter this week about this long article on Obama's early political career. It spends about 12,000 words tracking his rise from liberal lawyer to State Senator to Senator, and reaches this conclusion:
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.
Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.
Here's my two cents: I've had no problem recognizing Obama as a person. He's a familiar type. He's brilliant, he's racially mixed, he's a born outsider who has spent his adult life working his way in and up. I know... I won't say a lot, but several guys like Obama. Obama the person makes sense to me.
But up until now, he hasn't made a lot of sense to me as a politician. Insider, outsider, what? Charismatic visionary who won by counting noses? Brilliant orator who ran the "no-drama" campaign? This article provided some useful information (as it points out, Obama's own books mostly neglect his first decade in politics) and helped bring some things into focus.
Obama is from Chicago. Right. I used to live in and around Chicago. It's always been a city of rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckle politics. That's been true since day one: unlike most other big cities, Chicago has never had a golden age of relatively clean and honest government. It's always been, at best, greasy. No reformers have ever been able to seriously damage Chicago's machine; they either end up being devoured by it (Jane Byrne) or they learn to dominate it and drive to their purposes (Harold Washington).
Obama fits that second paradigm really well. And that's been true for a while. He didn't rise to be editor of Harvard Law Review by being saintly or charismatic. He got there by a combination of brilliance, hard work, and low cunning politicking.
This suggests to me that a President Obama would disappoint the hell out of many people. No, wait: that's not news. What the article does is, it gives me a much clearer notion of how President Obama may disappoint.
Oh, and: Obama's oratorical talents are trained, not innate, and are relatively modest. He's a good speaker but not usually a great one. It's just that (1) it's easy to seem great when the crowd won't stop cheering, and (2) the bar has been lowered so far in recent years, you know?
N.B., I'm still totally in the bag for Obama, and will continue to contribute and otherwise support. Putting aside that I'd vote for pretty much any non-Republican at this point, I think it'll be interesting to have a President who's smart, clear-headed, hard-working, and generally in touch with consensus reality.
We'll know in... yeah, 115 more days.
[update, a few hours later: As expected, everyone is linking to the article... and quoting those same two money grafs. No surprise. And the New Yorker cover, of course. I have no problem with the New Yorker cover. Land's sakes, people.]