Obama’s latest campaign stop: my unconscious

In my dream, Barack Obama did not pass the backyard barbecue test.

Actually, I don’t think it was a barbecue, but you know what I mean: this notion that the person we elect to the most powerful office in the world should be someone we’d like to hang out with: have a couple of beers, shoot some pool, shoot the shit, whatever. By most people’s measure, the current occupant of the White House passes that test — or at least he did eight years ago.

In my dream (and how sad is it that my exposure to the quadrennial horse race has reached such a level that I’m actually dreaming about the candidates?) Obama had dropped in on an extended family gathering of some sort. It was kind of a third-person dream, in that I understood that I was looking through somebody else’s eyes, someone presumably a bit more important than a scruffy poet-blogger with few ambitions and fewer means. The central drama involved some sort of rare seabird with a long, ratlike tail making an emergency landing in the backyard, where it was immediately set upon by the cat. It got away, a chase ensued, and eventually “I” managed to grab the bird and put it in a box, intending to call the nearest wildlife rehabilitator the next morning.

Senator Obama sat off to the side, looking relaxed and watching everything with great interest. He was very friendly, and said all the right things before he left: how much he’d enjoyed meeting us and how unforgettable an evening it had been. He even cracked a joke about the cat and the bird, which I don’t remember (I have a terrible memory for jokes). But as soon as he left, there was a palpable sense of relief in the gathering. It’s not that he was intimidating, exactly, though there was no doubt he was the smartest person there. It was just that he gave very little of himself away. His almost preternatural sense of composure and self-containment prevented him from being the kind of person one wanted to really unburden oneself to.

Now of course I have no idea how accurate this dream-perception might be as an insight into the real Barack Obama. But it does point to one quality that I think most of us want in the people we hang out with: they should be at least as flawed as we are, so they can empathize when we fuck up. Something tells me the current POTUS will be needing a lot of those kinds of friends in a few months — if he can find any who aren’t too busy writing bestselling books about how their own dreams of him were betrayed.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

18 Comments


  1. Wow. Interesting dream. The “quadrennial horse race” is indeed inescapable. His behavior in your dream does seem like classic politician behavior, but that’s the point, it’s a projection. Who knows what’s he’s really like except those closest to him. I’ve often found myself surprised when these guys (mostly guys) are interviewed when they’re not running for office – they seem a lot more thoughtful and intelligent. Somehow running for office turns them into automatons. Although Obama does seem to stand out in running while simultaneously being inspiring.

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  2. Your dream reminds me that I have often wished that politicians could really mingle with regular, common citizens. In fact, I have thought for a long time that all talk shows should have citizen journalists. We need access. Leslee’s comment seems right to me, that without contact with real people, politicians do become automatons.

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  3. I like Obama, as you know, but I think McCain often uses a somewhat better approach to win over people: I’m not like you. So what.

    Here’s McCain speaking to coal miners in Kentucky (as reported in this article in The New Yorker last month): “I can’t claim we come from the same background,” McCain began. “I’m not the son of a coal miner. I wasn’t raised by a family that made its living from the land or toiled in a mill or worked in the local schools or health clinic. I was raised in the United States Navy, and, after my own naval career, I became a politician. My work isn’t as hard as yours—it isn’t nearly as hard as yours. I had an easier start.” He paused and went on, “But you are my compatriots, my fellow-Americans, and that kinship means more to me than almost any other association.”

    (Somehow I gag when McCain uses words like “compatriots” — something I’d love not to hear for four years — but, anyway.) No shots of whiskey, no yellow mustard, and no gutter balls down the hill from Plummer’s Hollow. The pandering only emphasizes that there’s no connection.

    Deliberately failing the backyard BBQ test may be the only way to possibly pass a retest by November. The Bobby Kennedy of my dreams would say (okay, maybe with an impish grin), “I’m a rich, temperamental brat. Vote the hell for me anyway.”

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  4. I would be a lot more popular if I told people that I enjoyed meeting them and that I’d had an unforgettable evening with them. In most cases, I haven’t enjoyed meeting them and haven’t had an unforgettable evening with them, unless it’s an unforgettably bad one. This is why I mostly stay in.

    I know that’s all about me and not at all about your blog post, but there you have it.

    Hi Dave.

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  5. Somehow running for office turns them into automatons.

    I actually think, considering that politicians have to watch every word they say because the slightest slip will be pounced on by the media as a gaffe or a u-turn, it’s a miracle that there are any who manage to come across as natural and relaxed. Being a politician must be like being in court all the time — usually as a lawyer, sometimes a witness, and on the really bad days, the accused. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of successful politicians are in fact former lawyers.

    I can only think of a handful of people I’ve seen who manage to come across as authoritative and in command of their material and at the same time relaxed and natural. Bill Clinton was about the best I can remember in the past 15 or 20 years.

    Bush has something of the reputation of being a natural, likeable guy, but he never seems very relaxed and confident at press conferences, and he certainly never seems completely sure of his material. Most politicians go the other way: they concentrate on getting the content right and come across as stiff.

    But once they retire, you see them being interviewed and they often turn out to be charming, funny, interesting people.

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  6. ok, but what about on day one and it’s 3 am and the new president wants to watch some TV? will Obama have any idea how to use all the remotes?

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  7. Leslee – Well, I don’t think Obama has quite become an automaton yet, but it is distressing to see the compromises he has made to try and make himself more appealing to a mass audience: leaving Trinity United, disassociating himself from Muslims as much as possible, wearing a flag pin, etc. The self-possession is apparently a permanent part of his personality.

    robin andrea – Yeah, I think it’s about less about them mingling with us than us infiltrating or subverting the mass media, which obviously some of the biggest blogs (TPM, Kos) are already doing to some extent. The trick will be managing not simply to take the place of the old media, but to replace the old model with something a bit more grass-rootsy. it will be very interesting to see whether Obama, who has risen to power largely on the strength of the net roots, will give some kind of access to the sort of people who donated the most to his campaign after he’s elected. I imagine he will, since he’ll be counting on their help to win reelection – and I think he does retain his community organizer instincts and outlook.

    Peter – Yeah, I like that about McCain, too, though I agree with Dale that McCain’s time passed eight years ago. One of the interesting things about this election is the extent to which both candidates have managed to cast themselves as truth-tellers and outsiders. Obama is way more “outside” than McCain, of course, what with the funny name and African background, so at a time when frustration with business-as-usual is at an all-time high, he’s the man of the hour.

    Dana – Yes, if wasn’t for blogging, I’d hardly interact with anybody. I can sometimes manage the social niceties, but I tend to distrust the hail-fellow-well-met types, which is why the Obama in my dream is actually far more appealing to me as a leader than he would be if he were a backslapper. He reminds me of my dad, who was in fact an excellent administrator back in the day, I gather.

    Harry – True. If Obama weren’t so damn unflappable, he never would’ve made it this far. I think the whole Rev. Wright affair actually earned him points among a lot of people, who admired his grace under fire.

    I used to think Bill Clinton was a great politician until Obama came around. (Mind you, that’s not a statement about either of their politics, which are much more centrist than my own.) Bill’s numerous fuck-ups in the course of his wife’s campaigns reminded me that, political genius though he may be, there are limits to his ability to truly empathize and understand how his comments will be heard. Also, he has a hell of a temper. Most of all, he has an overwhelming desire to be liked. And his successor seems to have a strong desire to be obeyed and admired. I could be kidding myself, but I don’t think Obama suffers from either of these defects.

    Bush is probably likeable enough, but only at the level of really shallow, casual interaction. Had we not been subjected to him for eight years — his pettiness, his lack of curiosity, his inability to admit mistakes, his mangling of the English language — I seriously doubt that someone like Obama would have a chance right now. He is the Anti-Bush.

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  8. eped – Heh. I hadn’t thought of that. But he has to be better than McCain in that regard, don’t you think? And if not, he can just ask one of his daughters for help, I’m sure.

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  9. Are you saying we have Bush to thank for Obama?

    The only hanging out I’d want to do with Bush is attending his hanging after his conviction for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity. I’m afraid I insist on being rather hateful about it.

    This man wasted 8 years that could of been spent saving the planet with an unnecessary, ghastly, and tragically stupid sideshow war, not to mention converting the gov’t of the United State into a proto-fascist state. Louis the Sun King said “Le Etat, c’est moi.” The Bush motto would have to be, “The Stupid, it’s me.” If Bush was a movie, he’d be “The Evil Stupid.”

    Obama will have hit the ground running because we don’t have much time, because of Mr. Haveabeerability, and all the astonishingly clueless people who voted for him.

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  10. That’s true. And bright as Obama is, I’m not sure anyone is quite up to the task at hand now. Of course, I suppose he’d say that of course he can’t do it alone – that’s what the “change” thing is all about: bringing people into the process. Neutralizing the corporate lobbyists. I’ll believe it when I see it. I’d love to see him take steps to eliminate the imperial presidency and make Congress the “decider” again, as the Constitution envisions. But I imagine that, in the interest of expediency, he’ll find the currently grossly expanded executive powers too damn convenient to curtail. Hope I’m wrong.

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  11. Your comment about “the most powerful person in the world” always hits a chord with non-American me. I see no reason why people in other countries should not be part of the whole American election process if their leader is to have power over the rest of the world. People in other countries should have a say in what the American leader does to them if the President takes things outside the borders of the United States.

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  12. Good point. But a far better solution would be to have the U.S. stop playing globocop. Oh, and democratize the U.N. – do away with the Security Council.

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  13. The whole premise of the dream (which is a marvelous dream) — the idea that we should find our president likeable and “one of us” — stumps me every time. I don’t want somebody leading the country who is like me! For Pete’s sake (or for everyone’s sake), I want somebody way smarter, way cannier and skillful than someone like me.

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  14. the toughest act of all for a really smart politician is not letting on how smart he is. Specially in North America where being smart is not – well – smart. duh – y’know?

    (I was really fascinated by the bird and the cat in your dream)

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  15. Yes indeed. Well, I think Obama is doing a very good job of acting like a bit of a doofus lately — that thing with the imitation presidential seal, for example, or his decision to start wearing a flag pin. But my support for his candidacy is based on the belief that he is not only very smart, but imaginative as well. We will need a great deal of imaginative leadership in the years ahead. It almost doesn’t matter that Obama’s politics differ sometimes quite a lot from mine. The important thing is that he understands the need for change, and his track record seems to show a facility not only for inspiring people but for bringing them together across party lines.

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  16. The cat and bird imagery is very fascinating. In the real world cat’s lay in wait and pounce on unsuspecting birds. Some times the bird’s get away, some times they don’t. Forunately this one did, but then he was but in a box to be rehabilitated. Interesting that a bird needs to be rehabilitated to be taught to be a bird. I also thought it interesting that Obama only observed. He didn’t jump in and come to the bird’s aid like you did. You did something meaningful. He didn’t. Maybe you should be the one running for president.

    My only hope for the presidency is that someday we will have great leaders to chose from, not great politicians. Obama may be very imaginative, but he has no track record and seems to be pretty weak minded. I hope he doesn’t try to imagine us out of our problems and challenges. That could be a disater. I don’t know much about McCain, but he certainly is able to hold true to his beliefs, even under great pressure, as demonstrated by his years as a POW. I look forward to the debates, so I might find out who they are and what they stand for. So far it seems like a lot of promises without the details of how they will accomplish it all and make it all work. Until then I remain uncommitted. But thanks for sharing your dream.

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  17. I frankly am very wary about great leaders, though I do think we need one now. I don’t happen to share your assessments of either Obama or McCain, but thanks for the comment.

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