Obama The Politician Slays Obama The Prophet

09/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At some point, Barack Obama had to decide if he wanted to be President, or a prophet; if he wanted to lead a government, or a Movement. In the primary, the whole "Movement" schtick worked. He was the insurgent, he had an front-running opponent he could vilify, and the issue (Iraq) on which to pillory her for a Democratic primary audience, a percentage of which was ripe for participation in an orgy of self-congratulatory 60s nostalgia all dressed up in the effortless chintz of "change."

But it wasn't working in the general. He's no longer the insurgent. He's the nominee. He's no longer a Chicago grass roots organizer; he's the head of the Democratic party, in bed with Wall Street Kingpins and Capitol Kingmakers, armed with a war chest that would make Croesus blush.

Yet he was still temped to play the political Pied Piper. Instead of simply telling us how, as President, he would make our lives better, he invited us--no, insisted--that we join his "movement." The whole movement aspect began to cloud his message. He was not telling Americans why we'd be better off with him as President than we would with McCain. His loud, clanking Movement machine was so busy belching smoke and pinwheels, the electorate couldn't get a good look at him.

His campaign seemed to mistake size for substance. Getting tens of thousands of people to show up does not mean you have a social "movement." It means you're a hot ticket. This central miscalculation allowed the Republicans to hammer Obama as an empty suit. It has kept everyone asking who he is and what he stands for despite an endless primary season that should have definitively answered such questions.

By now, the prophet thing is all so much yesterday's news. Earl Ofari Hutchinson did a nice job of narrating progressives' spasmodic gyrations to justify Obama's shift on legalizing lawbreaking with the FISA bill, toleration of those who voted for the Iraq war, downshifting on a woman's right to chose, sidling up to Rick Warren at Saddleback Ranch and telling a crowd of evangelicals that he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman (but assuring us queers that we could have a back 'o the bus alternative.)

With this schism between his primary and campaign selves, you'd think he'd be sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge his mere politician's status and get on with it. In his acceptance speech, he finally did.

However, vestiges of the old, self-important movement mentality remain. I just received a lengthy solicitation missive from the Obama camp. I read most of the first page, looking for the salutation at the bottom. Then I saw a second page. Then I saw that there was a full page of text on the back of the first page. And there was a full third page, and yet more text on the back of that third page.

The campaign was asking me to read 4 pages of political junk mail before it got to its point. And then--4 pages not being enough--it had a frackin' P.S: "At so many decisive movements in our history we've seen one person stand up--and then another, and another still--until a movement was formed that could bring about change." He's asking you to write a bloody check, not face the dogs and water cannons on a protest line. Get a grip.

He kept such fluffery to a minimum in his speech. He talked policy, and what he wanted to do as President. He eschewed the political equivalent of putting his hands down our pants. He finally realized that some of us are not looking to join a "movement." We just want to vote for a President. Some of us don't get teary at the word "Kennedy." Some of us are dead sick of self-righteous invocations of Martin Luther King. Some of us are not saving an empty place at the table for the second coming of RFK.

Believe it or not, some of us are just looking for the best politician with the best policies to vote for. And we get turned off when a simple politician so loudly insists that he is so much more. Finally, in his acceptance speech, Obama showed us the politician, and left the prophet to the True Believers.