Tuesday, May 08, 2007

# Posted 8:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS THERE A RATIONAL EXPLANATION FOR OBAMA'S CHARISMA? There is no science of charisma. If a candidate doesn't have charisma, there isn't much that anyone can do about it. When a candidate does have charisma, it's hard to say why.

In last week's New Yorker, staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar took a shot at explaining the Obama magic. I think she did a pretty good job, although if you're a Hillary fan, you've probably had it up to here with fawning profiles of the junior Senator from Illinois. Anyhow, MacFarquhar writes that:
Obama’s calm is...a matter of temperament. The first thing almost everybody who knows Obama says about him is how extremely comfortable he is with himself.
Contrast that comfort with Al Gore and Hillary Clinton's self-conscious efforts to reshape their public personas. Obama's comfort in his own skin is also very different from Bill Clinton's thirst for approval. Clinton certainly had charisma, but of a very different kind.

Quite aptly, MacFarquhar compares Obama to a physician:
Obama’s detachment, his calm...is less professorial than medical—like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction, reassures the patient that the symptoms are familiar to him.
Who in our lives do we trust as much as doctors? We trust our parents, but we know them intimately. Doctors are essentially strangers who comfort us in a time of need. We tend to think of doctors as being above us, yet we don't resent them for it. Instead, we are grateful. As MacFarquhar observes:
[Obama] doesn’t strive for an Everyman quality: he is relaxed but never chummy, gracious rather than familiar.
Doctors earn their patients' trust by listening to their words. What's impressive, according to one of Obama's friends, is:
“The number of conservatives who’ve called me—roommates of mine, relatives who are Republicans—who’ve said, ‘He’s the one Democrat I could support, not because he agrees with me, because he doesn’t, but because I at least think he’ll take my point of view into account.’"
Of course, Obama's friends are not exactly an objective source of information. Yet my own experience talking to Republicans is similar. At minimum, I can say that I'm a Republican and I really believe that Obama listens in a way that other politicians don't.

Bill Clinton, of course, was famous for listening. Yet he seemed to listen because he needed you to like him. In contrast, doctors listen to their patients because they have made a professional commitment to the art of healing. We trust them because they are detached, not because they are emotionally engaged.

For politicians, one of the problems of listening to everyone and understanding everyone is that you are tempted to agree with everyone. If all a politician stands for is listening and conciliation, do he stand for anything at all? According to MacFarquhar, "Even Obama’s allies worry that it sounds a little flaccid."

Yet for the moment, at least, Obama is known for his passion and conviction. Somehow, he manages to listen without making people feel that he is pandering. How is that possible? In a word, Iraq. He is the only serious Democratic contender who can tell a simple and straightforward story about his position on the war. He opposed it. Now he wants to end it, but carefully.

While his competitors constantly struggle to explain their changing positions on the most important issue of the day, Obama projects resolve. But when it comes to Iraq, did Obama just get lucky? If he had been in the Senate in 2002, with one eye already on the White House, would he have made the same tactical compromise as Kerry, Edwards and Clinton? It's impossible to know. But it certainly was a lot easier for a local pol for Chicago to come out against the war than it was for those liberal senators with their eyes on the White House.

Then again, does it really matter if Obama got lucky? His competitors have been pretty lucky, too. Clinton married a future president. Edwards is rich and handsome. In the end, it's what they make of their luck that really counts.


(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

another slick willie.
My theory: "charismatic" is just a euphemism for "articulate"--or, as they used to say in Colin Powell's day, "well-spoken".

(By the way, I recall Colin Powell, in his potential presidential candidate phase, also being described as "remarkably comfortable with himself". I guess that's another thing, along with articulateness, that a certain type of white American is surprised to see in black people.)
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