Yes. Yes. Yes.
Now he's knocking at your door, America.
What struck me most about the amazing speech Obama gave following his decisive win in Iowa last night was his complete lack of giddiness. He was warm, eloquent, authoritative, full of conviction, but he never seemed lost in the moment.
Here he had accomplished something truly historic: an African-American candidate came in first -- beating two seasoned pols -- in rural America, in the heartland, in Iowa for godsakes, which surely competes with Idaho for the title of Whitest State in the Union -- and a red state to boot. (Does that make it pink?) And yet he was perfectly composed and self-aware.
This is a watershed moment in so many ways. In fact, last night we witnessed a watershed waterfall.
Here is a list of some of the watershed moments we witnessed in Iowa:
1. Largest turnout of new voters ever in the Iowa caucus.
2. A campaign that never resorted to negative attacks (the lowest Obama stooped to was questioning whether "Washington experience" is really that important to serving as President -- harsh!)
3. First ever presidential candidate who openly admits that his religious faith represents "a choice, not an epiphany."
4. Second ever presidential candidate who has a parent who was born in a foreign country (the first and only other, as far as I know, was Thomas Jefferson -- father from Wales, mother from England).
5. A new model of manhood for our time.
The last one perhaps needs some elaboration.
I see in Obama, beyond the political accomplishments, a significant cultural marker in terms of our contemporary idea of what consitutes a strong man -- and for that matter, a strong person, regardless of gender.
His opponents -- and the right wing media machine -- have attempted to define him as soft, as naive, as "Obambi," as too young and too inexperienced, but these charges seem to bounce off of him as soon as he speaks. He is slender, polite, quick to smile, even gentle in his way. Yet his impeccable control of what he is saying projects strength beyond question. What's going on here?
If we think of the panoply of ideas about manhood in our culture they tend to cluster around two poles: warrior/chieftan/cowboy or scholar/gentleman. The first group is rough-and-ready, agile of mind when needed, but mostly agile of body. These men bow down to no one. The second group is decorous, high-minded, confident and morally unimpeachable. These men, in many cases, inspire others to bow down to them by their sheer understanding of what lies before us.
Obama belongs to neither group -- or rather, both but more than both. He is tough like a warrior/chieftan/cowboy -- he refused jobs at cushy law firms after Harvard and instead dedicated himself as a commnity organizer to the streets and housing projects and churches of Chicago. We can imagine the icy-cold morning spent in dingy rooms drinking tepid coffee out of styrofoam cups fending off accusations and hacking coughs and disillusionment. No one can fairly accuse him of taking the easy way out.
Yet he is also obviously capable of inspiring a following. President of the Harvard Law Review (and universally loved, apparently). Wildly admired, early in his career, by his colleages at the University of Chicago Law School (Obama taught Constitutional law, a subject which I can safely say is one of the most mentally demanding of any area of expertise I have ever encountered. One of his colleages, Larry Lessig, who taught me Contracts when I was at U of C Law School in the mid-90s, is perhaps the smartest professor I ever encountered in my life -- and he recently endorsed Obama and attested to his brilliance). And, if anybody needed further proof of Obama's ability to inspiire, they need only look to Iowa.
But Obama does not fall neatly into the scholar/gentleman group either. He inspires, yes, but he does not take on the mantle. He remains visibly uncomfortable with the megalomaniacal side of running for President -- see my discussion of his Christmas video. And last night, flush with victory, he spoke to the crowd convincingly of the "movement" they had created together, and not his own path to the White House. Like Lincoln, he seems to draw inspiration from inside, from his own core values and his own visions for the future, and does not require the crowd's roar of approval. (Though, like Lincoln, he appears to thrive on connecting to people in all of their particularity -- again and again he writes of individuals and their influence on him in his memoir of growing up, Dreams From my Father.)
So what is this new pole, this third pole, of manhood which Obama represents?
I would argue that we see in him a model of how to be a strong person in the Information Age. We know now that our world is too large, too full of talent, for any one person to stand heroically above everyone else. We know that if anyone appears to, it is the result of a brilliant marketing strategy more than anything else. We know now that there are Abraham Lincolns and Elizabeth I's everywhere, in small villages in China and far-away cities in Estonia. We see them represented in film; on TV; in throw-away news stories or profiles; in internet vidoes; and when we travel.
So strength is not about fame or worldly success. Nor is it about brute force. In this new era, where the world has both shrunk and expanded, strength is about composure and self-knowledge. This is the only way to navigate the barrage of data in the Information Age; this is the only way to weave together the multiple identities needed in every one person these days (each of us juggles them: world-citizen, American-citizen, perhaps parent, worker, athlete, intellectual seeker, spiritual seeker, pragmatist, consumer of culture, creator of culture, friend, leader, follower, sometimes mentor, sometimes student).
Barack Obama is possibly the next President of the United States. He is also, already, an admirable person.