Getting to Know Obama

Barack Obama and Jim Johnson Photo Howard Fineman thinks we have learned a lot about Barack Obama from the Jim Johnson incident.

We know John McCain: as formed and familiar as a well-worn boot. But we don’t know Barack Obama very well, and getting to know him has been and remains the basic national task of 2008.

With less than five months until Election Day, there isn’t much time left for research. And because Obama still is wet clay, not yet fixed in the public mind, every news cycle, speech, sound bite (or nibble) and video stream takes on huge evidentiary significance. Almost everything is, as they say in the law, a case of first impression.

This comports with my judgment that McCain better known than Obama in the ways that matter. Fineman’s first impression?

What we learn is that Obama by instinct is no revolutionary, but rather a soothing semi-insurgent seemingly eager to reassure the very Establishments he claims to be eager to assault. We learn that he has yet to master the art of keeping his cool when someone (an opponent or the press) has the temerity to question his decision-making. We learn that his first instinct is to brush off criticism with a flick of a finger.

That’s my sense as well although I’m far from sure that this is how the vast majority of Americans, who are following this campaign through 13 second sound bytes, are seeing Obama.

One lesson he has internalized is how to cut his losses quickly. It took him months to ditch the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity Church of Christ. It took him weeks to distance himself from the likes of Samantha Power. It took Obama only a day to throw [Jim] Johnson [former head of his VP selection committee] under the bus.

While most of my commenters disagree with my assessment that Obama’s ruthlessness serves him well, we all agree with Fineman here.

This is both right and unfair:

If they had thought about it for more than a minute, they would have realized that Johnson is the very embodiment of the world they had been running against: a fabulously wealthy man who had gotten that way by manipulating the tangled strings of money and power in the capital, and whose chief calling card to many who admire him is not his mind but his access to other people’s bundled cash.

John McCain has had the same problem, as a man who runs on outrage against lobbyists but who keeps surrounding himself with them. They say a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, though, for a reason. Running against “insiders” and “special interests” and “big money” is a tried-and-true campaign tactic. Trying to run a campaign, much less a country, without these people would be stupid. The revolving door ensures that the most talented and experienced people move back and forth between government and big money jobs that depend partly on currying favor with the government.

Story via memeorandum. Photo via ABC News

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    That is some clumsy writing on Fineman’s part. I mean, my writing is frequently clumsy but he’s getting paid to do it.

    Doesn’t Mr. Fineman seem to be operating from the premise that Sen. Obama isn’t a politician?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Doesn’t Mr. Fineman seem to be operating from the premise that Sen. Obama isn’t a politician?

    Yeah. He’s taking Obama at his word, in one sense, but that’s confusing branding with substance.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    He misses another key Obama trait. Obama is never at fault. It is always a staffer who screwed up somehow. I’ve had bosses like that. They tend to be good at self promotion, but not at getting things done that actually benefit the company.