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The Man and His Moment
Comments () | Published January 1, 2009

Obama symbolizes the diversity of 21st-century America like no previous leader and in ways that go beyond his biracial heritage.

Bill Clinton advertised his plan to put together a Cabinet that looked like America. Obama quietly set about fashioning an administration that looks like him. The similarities go deeper than the large number of minorities. Obama’s team shares many of his personal characteristics, from his unflappability to an outward-looking perspective on the world.

In his universe, high intelligence is the coin of the realm—and a background as a global citizen is a definite plus. It’s no surprise that Virginia governor Tim Kaine is one of his favorite politicians. Kaine, like Obama, made it to Harvard Law from Middle America and had his eyes opened by life experiences outside the United States.

Obama—shaped by the polyglot society of his native Hawaii, an Indonesian childhood, and blood ties to Africa—is clearly attracted to worldly achievers. In Timothy Geithner, he chose a Treasury secretary of his own age—47—who spent formative years in Africa, Tokyo, New Delhi, and Bangkok. His national-security adviser, retired general James L. Jones, grew up in France.

The top echelon of his administration will be heavy with savvy government veterans. Conservative columnist David Brooks praised them as “the best of the Washington insiders.” Obama’s economic team, which likely holds the success or failure of his presidency in its hands, has been described as representing a generational shift.

Obama is the first president born after Kennedy took office; his parents married less than two weeks after JFK was sworn in, and he was born six months later. And yet, for many reasons, the new administration harks back to Camelot.

As president he’ll be tastemaker in chief, and his choices will likely become magnified as Kennedy’s were. His cosmopolitan style reflects modern, urban America in a way never seen before in Washington. Obama’s musical tastes are decidedly old school, according to Rolling Stone. As a product of the end of the baby-boom generation, he has programmed his iPod with artists popular in the 1970s: Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.

But he has also formed personal connections with alt-country singer Jeff Tweedy of Chicago-based Wilco and hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z. The rapper, frontman for the Black Eyed Peas, was among the warm-up acts for his acceptance speech in a Denver stadium. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Obama showcases the contemporary African-American scene at formal events in the East Room.

His reputation as a gym rat, along with an obsession with eating right and keeping fit—despite long years as a smoker—figure to make his pickup basketball games a focus of national attention, much like the Kennedy clan’s touch football. Whom the six-foot-two Obama crashes the boards with may generate media coverage worldwide, now that basketball is the most popular US sport outside this country.

Hopes are higher for Obama than for any incoming administration in decades. According to a Gallup poll, two of every three adult Americans think the country will be better after four years of his leadership.

“Millions of people watching this driving, handsome young man believed that he could change things, move things, that their personal problems would somehow be different, lighter, easier with his election.” That was JFK, described by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest.

Almost half a century ago, the nation’s aspirations for its new president seemed more extravagant than ever. Kennedy, he wrote, “was faced with that great gap of any modern politician, but perhaps greatest in contemporary America: the gap between the new unbelievable velocity of modern life which can send information and images hurtling through the air onto the television screen, exciting desires and appetites, changing mores almost overnight, and the slowness of traditional governmental institutions produced by ideas and laws of another era, bound in normal bureaucratic red tape and traditional seniority.”

For Obama, that expectations gap has widened. Worldwide communications, instantaneous and ubiquitous, have ratcheted up to levels unimaginable back in the days of black-and-white TV and three broadcast networks. Some Obama advisers worry that the public is bound to grow disillusioned, its patience worn down faster than ever by a 24-hour cable-news cycle that drives media coverage.

The inaugural address is typically a president’s first big chance to shape perceptions, and an online world will be watching Obama deliver his. There may be an echo of Kennedy’s eloquence when the first television president advised Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Obama, our first global president, didn’t wait for January 20 to convey a similar idea in simpler terms. He started on the day he was elected. From Grant Park in Chicago, he told everyone who was listening, “I need your help.”


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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles