The day before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Paul Smith. Paul’s what might be called an Obama “early adopter.” Like a lot of young, Chicago progressives, he threw himself into Obama’s senate candidacy when he was just a long-shot in a crowded primary field. In fact, Paul and I first met at an Obama fundraiser in the fall of 2003. So few donors had bought tickets for the event that a mutual friend on the campaign asked us to show up just to fill the room.
Over breakfast we talked about Obama’s impending announcement. Paul was preparing to drive down with me on Saturday to watch the speech in person, but feeling ambivalent about the candidate himself. “I can’t quite figure out where to plant my flag on him,” he said. “I was looking back at my blog from 2004 and the posts I wrote about him and I was so completely committed to him and so convinced he was special and wanted to convince others. And now, I just, I can’t quite get back to that. I want to recapture it, but I can’t remember what it was.”
In the car-ride down to Springfield on Saturday, we were also joined by our friend Dan, another early supporter. He met Obama through a mutual friend around the same time Paul became involved with the campaign. He donated money, organized friends, and became close with many of the campaign staff. I asked Dan if he shared Paul’s doubts. “I have issues,” he said with a frown. “He’s so fucking coy. I mean, I love the guy, but there are things that really matter to me, and they’ve got to really matter to him. And it’s not clear to me right now that they do.”
This sentiment is pretty widely shared among the Chicago progressives I know. Many have grown disillusioned with a man they once thought was one of their own and now seems in danger of becoming just another politician. Part of this can be chalked up to a kind of punk-rock-band-gone-MTV disaffection. People who were into Obama when he was an underground, authentic phenomenon aren’t necessarily so into the slickly produced, more pop-friendly version.
But then, music can be both really predictable and really popular, and the same is true of politicians. When I talked to people on Saturday, who’d come out on a freezing February morning to stand in the cold and hear a speech they recited, with an almost unsettling fidelity, the campaign’s own buzzwords: A college student from downstate said she liked Obama because he was from a “different generation,” and that she’d decided to come to “be part of history.” A recovering Republican grandmother said she admired Obama because he was “fresh” and two middled-age men with Obama t-shirts spent several minutes telling a Chinese news crew that Obama was a “uniter not a divider.” The reporter kept pushing the two men to name specific examples of this quality, but they just kept repeating the point.