I love the image of Barack Obama riding from town to town on a locomotive, giving whistle-stop speeches off the caboose like a taller, darker, prettier Harry Truman. Mostly I’d rather not associate him with Truman, who I think was generally an asshole who pissed off more people than he had to and wounded the Roosevelt coalition. But Obama has this in common with him: Harry ran his own style of campaign, telling the truth about himself, letting his flaws show as part of his reality, sticking to his message even during the stretches when it wasn’t selling too well, and he finally won despite all the standard analyses of how a candidate should win.
The pundits have all been critiquing Obama's “weak” performance in Wednesday’s debate, as he fumed and stumbled against the ménage à trois of Clinton, Stephanopoulos, and Gibson. And yet that “weak” performance led to a national eruption of rage against ABC in particular and old-style Beltway-bitch politics in general. It led to his largest-ever political rally, 35,000 strong in Philadelphia, and the endorsements of three party heavy hitters. It led to another big surge in fund raising. And some polls are showing that it boosted his popularity.
The strength of Obama’s open frustration during the debate was that he reminded us that we don’t have to play these games anymore. Had he worked the debate like Clinton, juggling balls of crap with the rest of them, he would have been only another efficient, old-time politico, winning the kudos of the pundits but giving us nothing new, no hope for change. By continuing to show up as who he is, both strong and weak, he forces the game to change. He becomes the change that we want to see and he makes it a little bit easier for the rest of us to do so too. And it’s working: every time they chuckle “gotcha” and wait for his poll numbers to drop, he only comes back stronger. Because the game is changing fast around them, and they don’t want to see it.