01/16/2007 09:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack, We Hardly Know Ye: A Question For Sen. Obama

It's Candidacy as Celebrity, as reported by our "American Idol" political press. The resemblance to another Presidential candidate is striking: The good looks, the swooning crowds, the swooning reporters, and the eloquence all bring to mind another charismatic Democrat. Unfortunately it's not John or Bobby Kennedy.

It's Jerry Brown.

When Brown ran in for President he drew the same screaming fans and the same enthusiastic coverage. He was a late entrant in 1976 but was given more of a real chance in 1980. Still, but at some point his campaign failed to coalesce on the ground. Voters weren't able to get a grasp of who this enigmatic candidate was, or what he stood for.

Is Jerry Brown's experience a cautionary tale for Barack Obama? It's too early to tell, and of course there are significant differences between these two intelligent and compelling politicians. But, like Obama, Brown had a knack for defying left-right differences. He replaced ideology with enigma and liberalism with language. In the end, it didn't work.

This is a high-risk moment for Barack Obama. He's the most famous new politician in America, and nobody really knows him. The left is disappointed with his lack of a clear stance on critical issues, his votes for Condi Rice's confirmation, and his use of religion to separate himself from other Dems (thereby reinforcing the impression that Democrats are too secular for America). (David Sirota lays out the case against Obama here and here.)

Obama for his part has defended each of these actions. I don't know what to make of him, other than to respect his intellect and obvious communication skills. I will say this: his skill at evading the left/right category could be his triumph - if it doesn't destroy him first.

I think I understand what he's trying to accomplish, but he's so intent on not being labeled that he risks getting the label he leasts wants: that of an evasive man, a holographic candidate designed to change in appearance depending on where the viewer stands. If that label sticks, his candidacy could prove as ephemeral as ... well, as a holograph.

There's danger in a McLuhanesque candidacy where the medium (or the media) is the message. At some point, the presence of no information becomes information - and damaging information at that.

I'd hate to see that happen. Obama has extraordinary gifts as a politician, and it would be gratifying to see him show similar ability as a leader. He has the potential. His writing is thoughtful and deep. His experience with (and recovery from) drug use may also be source of insight and growth for him.

Successful encounters with this kind of life experience often brings with it a sense of purpose in life, a desire to be of service. Attaining electoral office is a purpose, I suppose, but not a higher one. Political office is not a form of service, however, unless it's deliberately used as a platform for it.

I think Americans sense a yearning for higher purpose in Obama. I also suspect they would like to hear more about that purpose, and what he's willing to risk in order to accomplish it. Americans may yearn for a Celebrity Candidate and an end to partisan campaigning (which they nevertheless often reward with votes). But they're also yearning for purpose, and for leaders who are genuine"profiles in courage."

JFK faced many of the same criticisms Obama faces today, and for some of the same reasons. But Kennedy made a tactical decision early in his Senate career to find one cause and stake a strong position on it. He chose Algerian independence and the right of national self-determination.

It was a canny move. Kennedy was able to claim a generational stake for social progress that was not threatening to Americans' core issues of prosperity and anti-Communism. In that sense, Algeria was a symbolic issue for Kennedy, but it was an effective symbol for communication courage and change.

Obama hasn't even chosen a symbolic issue, and as a result he leaves a strong impression of excessive caution, with a suggestion of Hamlet-like over-deliberation over difficult choices. It might not be a bad idea for the Senator to find at least one slightly controversial cause, if he wants to change the impression that he's never able to take a stand.

There was a rash of books about JFK after his death. One took its title from the old Irish folk song, "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye" - a song that, ironically, lamented the terrible injuries suffered by a war veteran. As Americans continue to fight and die in Iraq, and suffer from poverty and lack of healthcare at home, it would be good to hear more specific policy proposals from him on those subjects.

As far as the primaries are concerned, Obama's fate may rest on the next few weeks. The left is about to coalesce around John Edwards if no other strong progressive appears, thereby splitting the "anti-Hillary" vote between the Party's progressive wing and its "Hillary is unelectable" wing. (And yes, there's overlap between the two groups.)

Obama's campaign team roster reads like a Who's Who of centrist Democratic campaigns. That raises the possibility that he'll tack far enough to the right to split the anti-Hillary Democrats and see some critical support siphon off to Edwards. I'd love to hear the Senator's thoughts about the campaign, and about the dynamics of the first few primaries.

But if I could only ask Sen. Obama one question it would be this one, offered with respect and courtesy:

What do you consider your highest purpose in this life, the purpose for which you would sacrifice everything?

I suspect he has an answer. Before coming to any conclusions about his candidacy, I'd like to hear it.

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