“Barack Obama,” Howie Kurtz declared, “will never get this kind of cuddly coverage again.”
With that, the uber-critic gave voice to one of the cyclical predictions of the primary season’s punditry, the prediction that appears and reappears, never fulfilled, yet never dying: that, at some point, the press will stop fawning over Obama. Kurtz made this particular prediction back in December. Of 2006.
Has it materialized? Well, flash forward to February of 2008, to Tuesday’s Potomac Primary. During MSNBC’s live coverage of the returns, as Mssrs. Matthews and Olbermann analyzed the victory speeches of the winners (Obama, by considerably more than a nose; McCain, by the skin of his teeth), Chris Matthews found yet another way to verbally cuddle the Illinois senator—and to communicate yet again his conviction that Barack, you know, rocks:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: I have to tell you, you know, it’s part of reporting this case, this election, the feeling most people get when they hear Barack Obama’s speech. My, I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don’t have that too often.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Steady.
MATTHEWS: No, seriously. It’s a dramatic event. He speaks about America in a way that has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the feeling we have about our country. And that is an objective assessment.
“Cuddly,” meet confounding. Chris “Thrill-Up-My-Leg” Matthews may be more viscerally excited about Obama (or just, as is his wont, more vocal about that excitement) than his fellows in journalism. (As TPM’s Greg Sargent noted, “In the days before the voting yesterday an extraordinary amount of good press rained down on Barack Obama. And no network has done more to push absurdly over-the-top story-lines favorable to Obama than MSNBC has.”) But Matthews isn’t that far out of step with other journalists, whether on air or in print. It’s an open secret—and one copped to with a surprising lack of sheepishness by Obama’s legions of supporters in the political press corps—that the press and Barack are, essentially, sitting in a tree. Obama has been treated as everything from a rock star to a Phenomenon (yep, capital P) to a Men’s Vogue-certified hottie to a political Messiah (“This is the New Testament,” Matthews told The Observer last week). Last January, Slate’s Tim Noah instituted the brilliantly ironic Obama Messiah Watch, “a periodic feature considering evidence that Obama is the son of God.” And, as CJR’s Gal Beckerman noted yesterday, even the normally even-handed Donna Brazile on Tuesday night called Obama “a metaphysical force in American politics.”
The love-in is familiar at this point, so much so that we—press and public alike—seem sometimes to forget the rhetorical absurdity of suggesting that a candidate, for all that he may transcend as a politician, somehow also transcends himself (“metaphysical force”? what does that even mean?). Or to ignore the insulting implications—for candidate and supporters—of equating Obama with a cult leader. Instead, the press has often reveled in the absurdity it has created, portraying Obama as a kind of postmodern commentary incarnate (ceci n’est pas un homme politique): he’s post-partisan, post-racial, post-everything-that-we’d-want-to-change. He is so resonant with meaning, apparently, that he transcends meaning itself. “Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause—other than an amorphous desire for change—the message is becoming dangerously self-referential,” Time’s Joe Klein put it last week. “The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.”
The campaign can exploit that narrative, though, through its complementary narrative: that Obama is The Future, and not just in the sense of “change”—not just as a torch being passed to a new generation of Americans—but also in the sense that he has become a hazy repository into which we can project our hopes, realistic or not, and into which we can take a collective leap of political faith. “As Obama well knows, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not yet seen,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani. Kennedy, meet Kierkegaard.