Barack Obama: Could He Be Too Popular?

Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 2006

For a politician, is there such a thing as too much popularity?

If there’s any cloud over U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s seemingly charmed political life, it may be that one.

With national political pundits now using words such as “messiah” in connection with the Chicago Democrat—and one former campaign opponent calling on him to run for president—some say he could ultimately be rising so fast and high in the American consciousness that he may end up with nowhere to go but down.

“It’s a cliche, but it’s true: The higher you go, the harder you fall,” warned pollster Del Ali of Research 2000, which conducted a poll for the Post-Dispatch last month that showed Obama with an unheard-of 70 percent approval rating among Illinoisans.

One rule of thumb in politics is to keep expectations low so that any mistake the politician makes looks smaller while any accomplishment looks bigger. For Obama, sitting on a runaway train of gushing publicity, that kind of “expectation control” has become impossible.

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Newsweek hasn’t helped. An essay published in the magazine last week described the reception that Obama received on his recent trip to Africa as “befitting a messiah.”

“It is not too early to pronounce Barack Obama a political phenomenon unlike any previously seen on the American scene,” the essay declares. It then, nonetheless, goes on to offer a previously seen example: John F. Kennedy.

Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes suggested last week that Obama could follow that path. In an unusual official statement on Thursday, Hynes pressed Obama to run for president in 2008, calling him “the person for these times.”

“You and you alone can best put together the broadest possible coalition with the charisma and the excitement, as well as the substance, to win,” Hynes wrote in an open letter to Obama, who beat Hynes in Illinois’ 2004 Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Hynes’ statement went on to vow to “impress upon (Obama) the breadth of support he has throughout the country.”

Obama (whose office reiterated last week that he isn’t running for president in 2008) hardly needs his own startling popularity impressed upon him. He has quipped about it himself, joking to reporters at a dinner in Washington in March, for example: “I want to thank you for all the generous advance coverage you’ve given me in anticipation of a successful career. When I actually do something, we’ll let you know.”

By most accounts, Obama has had a strong debut in the Senate in terms of legislative accomplishments. But the continuing demand for him to appear at political events across the nation clearly is out of proportion with any mere legislative agenda.

Pundits have offered various explanations for Obama’s “rock star” phenomenon, from his multicultural background (immigrant Kenyan father, white Kansan mother) to his intellectual credentials (first black Harvard Law Review president, bestselling author) to his political style (optimistic and conciliatory). Obama did win a Grammy earlier this year for the spoken-word version of his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father.”

The moment that lit the match was his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, which caught the attention of the national media for its eloquent statement of Democratic principles. His subsequent huge win in the Senate race in Illinois—though clearly aided by a series of self-destructing opponents—was hailed as further proof that a major new figure had stepped onto the national political stage.

“One of the weirdest things I ever saw was on the day before he was sworn in” to his Senate seat, recalled Gibbs, amused, “and somebody asked him what his place in history is.”

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