October 26, 2007

Obama inspires unique hope in youth

The University of Chicago is ground zero for the semi–nation wide Barack Obama lovefest. Here at the U of C, the Hyde Park resident and former Law School professor is probably idolized above, I would venture to say, just about any living American. Students proudly sport “Obama ’08” buttons, speak of “Barack” as if they know him personally, and are in Facebook groups like “Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack).”

But what’s so special about the junior senator from Illinois that makes him such an idol among America’s youth? Until recently, I thought of Obama as a flash-in-the-pan who utters hollow rhetoric about “hope.” This may or may not be true, but a glib dismissal of Obama is in turn a dismissal of his many supporters.

With this in mind, I think the question is worth examining more closely. Is it Obama’s unique positions on the issues that has set him apart from every politician, except perhaps Hillary Clinton? That’s unlikely, since if you look at them closely, the policy differences between Obama and the other Democratic frontrunners are marginal at best and almost nonexistent at worst. Obama, who opposes gay marriage and supports the death penalty, is closer to Clinton than he is to Dennis Kucinich.

If it’s not the issues, then what is it? His race? His speaking skills? His cute daughters and attractive wife? I think it’s all and none of these at the same time. That is to say all of these—including his family—are part of what make him successful.

What makes Barack Obama a great politician, and perhaps a great man, is his ability to come off as both normal and special. This is a bit unclear, but a few examples should illustrate it better.

George W. Bush is normal, but he’s not special. He seems like someone you could have a beer with or watch the ball game with or make small talk with in the supermarket. He appears—or he would if you set aside preconceived notions against him—genuinely friendly and approachable. Not surprisingly, what makes Bush normal also shows how not special he is. He is plain, not intellectual, and folksy, and he doesn’t always articulate well what he wants to say. These are certainly qualities that many people can relate with, but they are not the qualities we want in a president.

On the other hand, we have Hillary Clinton: She’s special, but she’s not normal. Few people question Clinton’s intelligence, and certainly no one doubts her ambition. Most of us can imagine her going toe-to-toe with any of the world’s top leaders, or perhaps even the world’s worst dictator. Similar to Bush, these positive traits also make up her biggest weakness, specifically that voters can’t relate to her. Who of us can imagine having a normal conversation with Hillary Clinton?

We all want the best parts of Clinton and Bush: We want a President we can relate to, someone we can shoot the breeze with. But we also want someone we think is great, someone who we feel can successfully control the fate of the country.

And that’s exactly what Barack Obama provides. He appears to be extremely intelligent and articulate, but he doesn’t speak with condescension or unnecessary flare. He talks plainly but is impressive nonetheless. Obama has also lived, if you excuse the cliché, the American dream. He has a seemingly perfect family and is a self-made man. Unlike Bush and Clinton, most Americans would feel comfortable either seeing Obama in a limousine on his way to the White House or having a chat with him on their suburban driveway.

This has special appeal to young people. Many of us still aren’t sure what we “want to be when we grow up.” Not just what job we want to have, but more importantly what type of person—what type of adult—we want to be. To us, Obama is a perfect role model of a successful adult—mature, but still “cool,” to put it simply.

Obama often speaks of hope, specifically hope for our country. But I suspect that for some young people, Barack Obama doesn’t just stir hope in the country. He also inspires hope in ourselves. He inspires the hope that one day we can grow up to be like him: both normal and special.

Matt Barnum is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and psychology. His column appears every other Friday.