Leonard Nimoy approves of Barack Obama’s emotional detachment and logical approach to campaigning.
“He is measured and stable,” said Mr. Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek, and who has supported Mr. Obama since they first met about a year and a half ago at a small Los Angeles fund-raiser. “It’s true that he has an intellect that works for him, he handles difficult problems with aplomb. Reliability and stability are very important assets in this race, in these particularly volatile times.”
Mr. Obama, as far as anybody knows, does not greet strangers with a cloven V salute, practice debilitating neck pinches, bleed green or have a constitutional incapacity to fib. But his methodical, unflappable style and otherworldly resistance to overt displays of emotion—not to mention his temperamental inability, or refusal, to connect on a visceral level with working-class voters—makes him, by contemporary candidate standards, downright alien.
That’s usually not a good thing. Yet, with less than a month until Election Day 2008, the Vulcan is winning.
Mr. Obama now holds statistically significant leads in the national polls, and once out-of-reach states like Indiana and Missouri are floating into his orbit. More significantly, battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Florida and Michigan are drifting out of the reach of the McCain campaign.
Extraordinarily, Mr. Obama has gotten to his current position, for the most part, by refusing to budge. Stylistically, since the beginning of the primaries, he has consistently delivered his “change” message in a cool, measured and almost emotionally detached manner that stands in stark contrast with his 4-year-old reputation for soaring oratory.
“Normally voters do prefer a candidate who is more emotionally engaged,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who served as Mr. McCain’s communications director in the 2000 race. “Obama has had the good sense to recognize the larger political tides and stay out of their way.”
Mr. Schnur said he couldn’t remember the last time a candidate with such a dispassionate presentation did well in a presidential election, but said, “The question for voters is whether they want a fighter or a soother. In these tumultuous times, the soothing approach might be working better. John McCain is best at rallying people to a cause, but it is important for that cause to have a very specific target. When it is Al Qaeda or special interests, that’s one thing, but it’s harder to rally people against a recession.”
Mr. McCain, of course, is the passionate, emotional and all-too-human candidate who strikes a chord with voters but can often be seen to be doing battle in real time, Kirk-like, with the enemy within.
During the first presidential debate in Mississippi, he persistently avoided eye contact with Mr. Obama despite the moderator’s entreaties for the candidates to engage directly with one another. Mr. McCain’s advisers said afterward that he had done so deliberately in order to avoid becoming enraged.
And then, last week, Mr. McCain met with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, a paper that endorsed him during the primary.
When asked whether he worried about the criticisms of Sarah Palin coming from some conservative Republicans, Mr. McCain seemed to dedicate every ounce of his being to not tearing out the throat of his interlocutor as he answered: “Really? I haven’t detected that. And I haven’t detected that in the polls. I haven’t detected that amongst the base. We get 20,000 people that come to our rallies. So, again, I fundamentally disagree. Now if there’s a Georgetown cocktail party person who, quote, calls himself a conservative and doesn’t like her, good luck. Good luck. Fine.”
THE MCCAIN CAMPAIGN has accurately reflected the candidate’s own impulsive nature, focusing on narrative-shifting tactics—the high-impact, high-risk selection of Ms. Palin as his running mate, say, or the decision to “suspend” his campaign in order to take “action to address this crisis”—to seize control of individual news cycles, at the cost of any appearance of steadiness.
After the Register put a video of the editorial board meeting online, The Washington Post wrote about it under the headline, “McCain: The Angry Warrior?” In an article headlined “Anger vs. Steadiness” in Time this week, Joe Klein called Mr. McCain “pinched,” while Mr. Obama was the “least angry man” who has kept his head throughout one of the most exhausting, and brutal, years of continuous campaigning in memory. In a cover story called “Mr. Cool vs. Mr. Hot,” Newsweek did the same. Mr. Obama was “precise, occasionally withdrawn and methodical,” while “[w]atching McCain swoop and veer over the past two weeks has been enough to induce vertigo.”
The Obama campaign has been delighted to watch this view hardening, however belatedly, into conventional wisdom.
“If there is one thing that has to be said about our campaign is that it has been a consistent campaign,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. “There is some uncertainty of where Senator McCain is at, because he has been going from pillar to post, from the economy’s fundamentally strong to days later, and hours later, perhaps, saying that we are in crisis. That doesn’t inspire trust or credibility in your message.”
Mr. Axelrod was talking to The Observer in a hallway outside a media center at Washington University in St. Louis before the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Ms. Palin, during which Mr. Biden, even on his best behavior, exhibited more emotion, sentiment and fire than his running mate ever has.
Mr. Axelrod said, “We’re facing some really significant challenges in this country and the ability to deal with them with a kind of centeredness and consistency and poise I think is going to be important. People sense that and we have seen it in the last two weeks.”
Some of Mr. Obama’s other surrogates, in the hours after the debate, also talked up the process-based contrast between the campaigns.
“There has been only one candidate in this cycle who has never had any drama,” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri told The Observer. “There have never been any backbiting or public leaks, there has never been any time that they ran out of money and had a financial crisis. The irony is the McCain people want to say that Barack Obama is risky. Hello? Look in the mirror.”
“This is the best-run campaign that has ever existed,” Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico flatly proclaimed to The Observer. “They don’t have management by consensus. They make a decision and they stick to it.”
The campaign has certainly managed to present itself that way, even in the face of actual substantive changes of position. As when Mr. Obama broke a promise to accept public funding and the spending limits that come with them, or when he relaxed his opposition to off-shore drilling. The shifts were presented, with a minimum of facade, as strategic decisions, taken to adjust for changed circumstances. Opprobrium arrived, was endured and then dissipated.
More often, though, the campaign’s finest moments have been its most aggressively passive ones.
When, in April of this year, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain both came out in favor of a federal gas-tax holiday, Mr. Obama refused to go along with it, calling the measure out as the election-time gimmick it was. He maintained his position, when both the Clinton campaign and then the McCain campaign thought they had him in a blunder, on an easily demagogue-able (and perhaps improvised) pledge to meet without precondition with leaders of hostile nations. And most recently, when Mr. McCain announced the suspension of his campaign in order to parachute into Washington for the bailout-legislation negotiations, Mr. Obama kept campaigning.
THAT’S JUST THE WAY he is, say some longtime associates.
“There was a sense of centeredness and calm about him from the very beginning that was really one of his most impressive features,” said Laurence Tribe, a professor of Constitutional law for whom Mr. Obama served as a research assistant at Harvard Law School. “I’ve never asked Barack this, but I think he must meditate or something.”
Mr. Tribe recalled a tempestuous year at the law school, a racially charged controversy erupted over the proposed hiring of a black female professor.
“Barack, being African-American, was right in the middle of it, with people tearing at him from both sides,” said Mr. Tribe, who at the time assigned Mr. Obama to help research a paper he was writing about the application of Einstein’s theories to law called “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Modern Physics.” “He had some crisis of some sort; I don’t remember if it was personal or if other students were disagreeing with him about something. I was amazed that he could deal with these very abstract ideas and then calmly return a call and get into a completely different gear.”
Decades later, as Mr. Obama competed in debates against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Tribe—an early Obama supporter—said he would send e-mails saying, “Barack I thought you should have done this or that.”
“And he wrote back saying, ‘You may be right, but wait. I grow,’” Mr. Tribe said.
Orin Kramer, one of Mr. Obama’s most influential fund-raisers, recalled first having lunch with him in the winter of 2004, when he was running, from behind, in a U.S. Senate primary in Illinois.
“He analytically thought the dynamic was different than people perceived, and in retrospect he nailed it,” said Mr. Kramer.
Later, just before the current election, Mr. Kramer met with other top New York donors at a D.C. steakhouse and decided to support Mr. Obama instead of Mrs. Clinton, the heavy favorite of the local establishment. What impressed him, Mr. Kramer said, was “the way in which he analyzed the race, which involved a number of factors that certainly weren’t visible, but were in the works, and it wasn’t so much that he happened to win, because frankly things occurred, circumstances that are unpredictable, but he had a sense of where the country was going.”
Not all of Mr. Obama’s supporters have always been so at peace with his extraterrestrial self-assuredness.
In October of 2007, Mr. Obama’s donors and supporters restlessly agitated in an attempt to shake the campaign into more aggressive action as their national poll numbers sagged against Mrs. Clinton. The campaign kept their gaze trained on Iowa and won.
Just a few weeks ago, when the McCain campaign seemed emboldened by Ms. Palin’s performance at the Republican National Convention, and Clintonites polished their “I told you so” lines and mocked Mr. Obama as a Kerry-esque wimp, supporters again began pulling out their hair.
THEN WALL STREET imploded. And a preternaturally, almost weirdly calm academic type—a Vulcan, essentially—suddenly seemed like exactly what the country needed.
Hence, perhaps, the multiple Web sites currently hawking “Obama ’08 … and Prosper” buttons and “Live Long and Prosper” T-shirts, portraying the candidate with black helmet hair, pointy ears and a tight blue Spock shirt.
On his blog, Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s comparative media studies program, said that when National Public Radio asked him who in popular culture most evoked Spock, “The fan boy in me immediately went searching through contemporary science fiction television. I considered and then discarded Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica as probably too obscure to make sense to an NPR audience,” he wrote, adding, “But, then, my mind went in a very different direction and before I quite knew what I was saying, I found myself talking about Barack Obama.”
Spock himself was reluctant to lay the alien comparisons on too thick, for fear of rendering the candidate ridiculous.
“There’s already stuff on the Internet joking about him being Vulcan–like,” Mr. Nimoy said, before adding, in starkly non-Spockian terms, “Jesus Christ! This is serious business going on here. This is the safety of the world at stake.”