Sunday, July 13, 2008

Does Obama Have a Big Enough Ego?

One of the prerequisites for a serious run at the presidency is a huge ego. Everything about the American presidency--the White House, Oval Office, West Wing, Lincoln bedroom, and nuclear football, as well as moments like the Gettysburg Address, Kennedy Inaugural, and Roosevelt's fireside chats--as been given iconic, semi-religious status in American society. To be an American president means that someone has to rise so far above the idolizing of presidents that they can see "the Oval Office" as a place to get work done, meeting foreign dignitaries as "part of my job," and dealing with earth-shattering events like the war in Iraq or Katrina in the mundane terms of "solving problems," "seeking political advantage," or "responding to opponents." In other words, part of being president is being a man or woman apart from the cultural and political apparatus for idolizing the presidency.

All of that takes an enormous sense of self-confidence, personal mission, and a large vision of a person's place in history. In other words, it takes an extraordinary amount of ego.

That has especially been the case for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. As the first serious African-American and female contenders for the office, Obama and Clinton have had to see themselves in even more monumental terms than white male candidates. In many ways, Obama's and Clinton's candidacies have been culminations of the long histories of black struggle and the women's movement in the United States. The efforts of literally millions of men and women over the entire history of the United States went into putting Obama and Clinton into a position to run such powerful campaigns. It must have taken an extraordinary amount of self-confidence for both Obama and Clinton to carry thos legacies while also focusing on mundane things like meeting with reviewing speeches, local dignitaries, choosing New Hampshire diners for breakfast, getting hair done, and locating the right tie.

Now that Clinton has been eliminated, one question for Obama's candidacy is whether he really has a big enough ego to not only be president but to preside over a unprecedented and unavoidably monumental kind of presidency.

In this light, Jonah Goldberg's complaints about Obama's ego in the New York Post seem strangely off-key.

Goldberg writes in the New York Post:

Perhaps [Obama's] an adulation junkie . . . That would account for why a man who thinks striving for popularity is a character flaw has nonetheless decided to give his nomination acceptance speech in a 76,000-seat football stadium. Or it might tell us why a candidate who hasn't even been nominated yet wants to re-enact some of the most famous scenes from both Reagan and JFK's highlight reels by holding a rally at Germany's Brandenburg Gate . . .
To the contrary, doing things "big" like this is a strong sign that Barack Obama is someone who's up to the job. Two of the logical questions associated with managing a political convention are "how do we make my nomination special?" and "what can we do to stand out?" Obama's answer shows exactly what a high level of imagination, confidence, and guts he and his staff have. The idea of giving the acceptance speech in the football stadium stands out in a huge way, makes the speech an even bigger event than it would have been otherwise, and grabs the attention of people in the important swing state of Colorado. Even more important than that, the idea of giving the acceptance speech in the stadium speaks volumes about Obama's confidence in his own ability and the ability of his staff to make an signal success of the event. Obama is assuming that his camp can nail down the mundane details of ticketing, lighting, seating arrangements, writing the speech, and delivering the speech so well that they can produce a "happening."

The fact that Obama has this kind of matter of fact confidence is a good sign that he thinks on a grand enough scale to be a successful president.

Obama's stadium gambit is also politically astute because it puts pressure on McCain in areas where McCain is weak like staging events and writing and delivering speeches. McCain and his people aren't big on preparation and this is a chance to really show them up.

The same thing is true of holding a rally at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where JFK and Ronald Reagan created a lot of their own legacies. In discussing the event, Obama is assuming that he can make a mark on history just as well as Kennedy or Reagan. Given that Obama is running for president, he should be taking it for granted that he will make an impact on American society and indeed the world at large that rivals or surpasses the significant presidents of the past.

Otherwise, Obama shouldn't have run at all.

The irony of Obama's trip to Germany and Iraq is that he might not have been making the overseas trip at all if John McCain hadn't challenged him to travel to Iraq. If Obama ends up speaking at Brandenburg Gate and the speech is a big success, the whole trip might be a huge plus for his campaign.

But that's a lot of being president is about--dealing with challenges in imaginative and successful ways. And it appears that Barack Obama has enough skill and confidence--and a big enough ego--to get it done.

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