Obama's "American Idol" Veepstakes

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Aug 25, 2008 12:00 AM
Obama's "American Idol" Veepstakes

At long, long last, it’s over. Barack Obama finally chose a running-mate, Delaware senator Joe Biden. But as the frenzied speculation, countless questions and breathless stakeouts wound down, it was impossible to escape the nagging question: Wasn’t there something just a little anticlimactic about the whole thing?

It’s not just that the pick – America’s sixth-longest-serving senator, first elected when the candidate himself was eleven years old – is spectacularly unexciting, or that the much-heralded message texted “directly” to supporters didn’t work properly. Or even that CNN reported the selection before the campaign released it. Rather, the letdown is a direct result of the ridiculously over-the-top coverage of the run-up to the announcement – emblematic, perhaps, of a campaign that so far has been a lot more about sizzle than steak.

Certainly, the candidate played the press to the hilt, stoking the media frenzy for almost a week. Obama dropped coy hints about his decision-making process, offered tidbits about when the news might be released, teased the press about its obsessive interest in the outcome, and did everything else in his power to make the run up to the announcement as theatrical and dramatic as possible.

On some level, the strategy made sense. Not only was the veep selection story a relatively safe and positive one for the Obama campaign, it offered a way to put the campaign narrative on hold for a week before the Democratic National Convention – hardly a bad thing when a candidate has been steadily eroding in the polls for the past month. Offering a 3 a.m. text message to anyone who’d provide contact information promised the added benefit of a whole new list of potential supporters – people who could be solicited for money and urged to the polls.

And yet, in the end, it all seemed more than a little silly. Unpresidential, even. The over-the-top rollout seemed to bespeak a certain lack of seriousness about the task at hand. This isn’t an American Idol competition, after all – it’s supposed to be a deliberative process to identify the person most qualified to run the country if the unspeakable comes to pass.

Instead, like the candidate’s overseas trip last month, Obama’s veep announcement seemed to be every bit as much about style as about substance – orchestrated in a manner reminiscent of a movie studio seeking maximum public attention for a new release. It’s an odd strategic choice for a candidate who’s already been tagged as more of a celebrity than a leader.

If John McCain wants to offer a striking – and illustrative – contrast of his own to Barack Obama’s glitz-and-flash approach, next week offers a perfect opportunity. On Friday, he should simply step to a podium and tell voters whom he has selected. No feeding frenzy, no twee statements, no hint dropping, no lash-fluttering at the press. That, “my friends,” is the way that adults make important decisions.

Americans have enough drama in their own lives. They neither need nor expect politicians to supply them with more of it. Obama’s apparent need to hype his every major move – from an overseas trip to his veep selection to his nomination acceptance speech – has begun to raise the troubling suspicion that his pursuit of the presidency is less about addressing voters’ public priorities than meeting his own need for attention.

Certainly, Barack Obama has already received his fair share and more of media coverage. As the final stretch of the campaign begins, let’s hope there’s an opportunity to discern whether he deems the incessant glare of the spotlight a necessary evil, or an all-too-welcome end in itself.