Dr. Barack and Mr. Obama

David Brooks has an important column in today’s New York Times. Important, in the sense that it establishes a meme that will likely cling, like small-town Americans to guns and religion, to Barack Obama; and important in the sense that it will likely have traction in the campaign-trail discourse between now and November.

That meme is, to be specific, “the two Obamas,” a rendering of the Democratic nominee as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde for the modern political age. “Dr. Barack,” per Brooks’s portrayal, is cerebral and idealistic; “Fast Eddie Obama” is ambitious and cunning and—oh, yes, Brooks goes there—Machiavellian. (Mwaaahaha.) Brooks explains:

As recent weeks have made clear, Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.

Brooks’s yin-yang construction of Obama rings true, apparently, even to the candidate’s supporters. As the admitted Obamaphile Andrew Sullivan puts it—in a post entitled “Niccolo Obama”—“I never doubted his cunning or his charisma. It’s the combo that’s so lethal. Are the Republicans awake yet? The Clintons weren’t.”

“Cunning and charisma.” You don’t have to be George Lakoff to know that, as slogans go, that’s about as sticky as they come. (The alliteration alone…!) And yet it’s worth noting the rhetorical slipperiness of each term, as well, both as a unit and in tandem. Both cunning and charisma can be assets to a politician, depending on the context and the circumstance; both, as well, depending on the same, can be liabilities. Brooks himself remains (refreshingly) non-committal about the ultimate import of the meme he establishes:

I have to admit, I’m ambivalent watching all this. On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.

All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naïve. But naïve is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades. Even Bill Clinton wasn’t smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.

The ambivalence here—not to mention the mixture of disdain and grudging admiration that seeps into and out of Brooks’s column—is instructive. We’re operating within a political system, after all, that rewards—hey, even demands—cunning in and from our candidates. (If politics, in its most commonly used metaphor, is a game, then no one wants to watch a wimpy dolt trying to play it.) And yet we’re aware, almost instinctually, that cunning is, you know, bad. Same, on the other side, with charisma: we know it to be good on the whole, but we also know that, when exhibited in politicians, a candidate’s charm can beguile us into acting against our own pragmatic political interests.

In that sense, Brooks’s column is as much about our political system as it is about Barack Obama: the columnist’s conflicted attitude toward the candidate is just as much a conflicted attitude toward the system that has propelled that candidate to the nomination. And it’s a crazy system. We ask that our candidates, after all, be at once idealistic and practical; that they be both stalwart in their convictions and willing to compromise with those who don’t share those convictions; that they be both smooth and sincere; that they be both high-minded and grounded; that they be at once better than us and the same as us. It’s not unfair so much as it’s absurd. There’s almost no way for any person, no matter how talented a politician, to fulfill all the expectations we set. And the paradox of our demands compromises our politics in every way—so much so that one of the most opinionated opiners we have is left utterly (if eloquently) confounded in its wake.

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