David Brooks, Meme-Maker

Is Obama too slippery for his own good?

A few weeks ago, David Brooks tested his meme-making abilities with a column that portrayed Barack Obama as a conflicted soul: Dr. Barack and Mr. Obama. Dr. Barack is cerebral and thoughtful, Brooks wrote; Mr. Obama is calculating and, in every sense, political. The candidate himself is a tense combination of the two.

I predicted that Brooks’s formulation would stick, that the Obama-As-Yin-Yang meme would catch on to form a central framework for Obama’s personal narrative. I was wrong.

Brooks’s dichotomy, as a full-blown meme, hasn’t (yet) caught on. But, today, the columnist is back with a related, and also potentially meme-making, column, this one portraying Obama as a “sojourner,” a wanderer—and as someone, therefore, who is eternally and intrinsically removed from his surroundings. “Why isn’t Barack Obama doing better?” Brooks asks, anything but rhetorically, citing polls that show Obama almost tied with McCain, despite the relative unpopularity, this year, of the GOP.

His age probably has something to do with it. So does his race. But the polls and focus groups suggest that people aren’t dismissive of Obama or hostile to him. Instead, they’re wary and uncertain.

And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book “Dreams From My Father” with a quotation from Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Brooks goes on to build a case—not necessarily a compelling one, as Lester Feder argues today—for Obama’s peripatetic outsider-ness: his childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. (“He absorbed things from those diverse places but was not fully of them.”) His bicoastal college career. His few years as a community organizer in Chicago (he “left before he could be truly effective”). His short time in the Illinois state legislature (“he was famously bored by the institution and used it as a stepping stone to higher things”).

There’s a refrain in this: Obama as “in, not of.” By habit and perhaps by nature, he has one foot in—and one foot out, Brooks suggests—of most every place he goes, and most everything he does. He is yin and yang in one, a study of opposites incarnate. There’s a suggestion, here, not just of a person who is constantly moving, but also of a person who—in, not of—can’t commit. And a person whose coolness can easily become calculation, whose political ambitions can easily trump passion.

He was in Trinity United Church of Christ, but not of it, not sharing the liberation theology that energized Jeremiah Wright Jr. He is in the United States Senate, but not of it. He has not had the time nor the inclination to throw himself into Senate mores, or really get to know more than a handful of his colleagues. His Democratic supporters there speak of him fondly, but vaguely.

And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.

This would seem, all in all, a fairly round condemnation of the presumptive Democratic nominee: non-committal, calculating, other. While emotional engagement can be, of course, a liability for a candidate (see “Scream, Dean”), automaton-like coolness is perhaps even more of one. And there are few things worse for a politician to be, in Americans’ eyes, than calculating. While Brooks mentions the positive side of Obama’s in/out dichotomy—“his fantastic powers of observation,” “his skills as a writer and thinker,” and the fact “that people on almost all sides of any issue can see parts of themselves reflected in Obama’s eyes”—the column’s overall taste is somewhat bitter. It paints a picture of someone defined by, in the largest sense, his otherness.

But Brooks’s column, particularly when combined with his previous attempt at meme-making, is revelatory—and not merely in what it says, but also in what it suggests. Brooks implies something of a void in the coverage of Obama’s campaign thus far: namely, the fact that the press has yet to determine the Official Obama Narrative. McCain has had his for years: the GOP’s nominee presumptive is, of course, the Maverick. Everything written or said about McCain, to a large extent, spins around that narrative axis—and will generally, whether in the service of confirmation or refutation, somehow relate to it. While that, of course, isn’t all to the good—the domination of the Maverick narrative in McCain’s coverage is reductive and in many ways misleading— it at least lends logic to the coverage of McCain’s campaign, establishing a kind of ideo-centric cosmology in which discrete narratives relate, fairly reliably, back to the Prime Mover of the McMaverick meme.

Obama—being both new on the scene and, as Brooks points out, simply harder to pin down—has no such narrative. He is, press-wise, an open book to McCain’s closed one, a collection of scattered ideas to McCain’s established brand. Which leads to something of a rhetorical free-for-all in Obama’s media coverage, a kind of grasping-at-straws on the part of the press as its members try, and generally fail, to establish a narrative that will not only stick, but also dissolve and disseminate into the most powerful meme-monger of all: Conventional Wisdom. So—though McCain gets his share of silly narratives (Computer neophyte! Grumpy!)—Obama gets the vast majority of campaign ’08’s let’s-just-call-them-fanciful portrayals. (He’s too skinny! He’s too girly! He’s too effete! He’s too arrogant! Et cetera.)

Without an overarching narrative to relate to, the patently absurd narratives join the more serious ones in the cacophony clamoring for meme-hood. And in all the noise, even the more serious frames for Obama’s candidacy—perhaps the most notable of these being his universality, the communal aspect of his person and his story—haven’t rung in our ears with the same catchiness as the McMaverick jingle.

And that may be attributed, in large part, to what Brooks is pointing out today: that Obama himself is perhaps simply too slippery for stories to stick to him. That he can’t be pinned down by or to a single, overarching meme. That, in fact, the only comprehensive narrative the press can write about Obama is the fact that, in the end, perhaps no such narrative exists.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.