Barack Obama—The Last Yuppie
February 23, 2008, 01:46 AM
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It's not exactly a coincidence that for the last 15 years, our Presidents were both born in 1946. The previous birth dearth helped Bill Clinton get elected governor at age 32, and let George W. Bush drink away his 20s and 30s without paying a serious (or any) career cost. There just wasn't much competition from the ranks of people one to fifteen years older than them.

In contrast, the late baby boomers of, say, 1955-1964 faced a huge number of early baby boom elders clogging the desirable jobs ahead of them. The later boomers are a huge group, well-nourished, well-educated, with lots of talent. They tended to have a chip on theirs shoulders about the early Baby Boomers, their sense of entitlement and their self-mythologizing. (Thus, for example, punk rock was very much a rebellion of late boomers against the hyperhyped music of the early boomers.) I'm not a big fan of generational analysis, but it's a safe generalization that late boomers tended to feel more constrained, and hence more concerned about their life prospects, than the lucky early boomers.

You seldom hear the quintessential 1980s term "yuppie" anymore, perhaps because the young urban professionals it was first applied to aren't young anymore. But, by Presidential standards, Barack Obama, who was born late in the baby boom in 1961, is still young. And he's definitely urban and professional.

Indeed, he came of age, like so many classic yuppies, in the Reagan years in New York. Like many others at the time, he swore off recreational drugs and excessive drinking, took up jogging, developed some big career ambitions, and seriously set about making them happen. (One exception to the stereotype is that he continued chain-smoking, suggesting perhaps a high-strung personality under the surface that requires some self-medicating via nicotine.)

Now, yuppies accomplished a lot, but they were never exactly well-liked: too calculating, too emotionally cold, too ambitious, and too self-interested are the stereotypes. And that's a problem when your goal has always been to be elected to high office, which is primarily a popularity contest. So, Obama figured out a brilliant way to solve his yuppie problem.

He joined a church in 1988.

He doesn't seem to have any particular religious belief (by his own detailed account, he gets a warm feeling of racial solidarity out of attending church, but it's a stretch to call it a faith), but he was very careful about which church he joined. He picked out the most successful proto-megachurch on the South Side of Chicago, which was led by a superstar sermonizer named Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr..

Now, there are lots of preachers on the South Side, but Wright had two essential qualities:
  • Wright's far leftist politics and racial resentment were congenial to Obama;
  • Wright was the best, the most successful preacher / organizer around. In the Darwinian dog-eat-dog world of modern Protestantism, Wright is one of the handful of winners who have succeeded in building a megachurch.

So, what was Obama doing in Wright's church all those years?

Studying. The agnostic preppie from Hawaii learned the tricks of the preaching trade from Wright, which allows Obama to drape over his shoulders the vast moral authority our culture has accorded black preachers ever since Martin Luther King, while claiming to merely be promoting technocratic yuppie reforms that won't scare white people.

The English essayist Jonathan Raban writes:

 

"The title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope is an explicit salute to a sermon by Wright called "The Audacity to Hope," and his speeches are peppered with Wrightisms, like his repeated claim that "There are more young black men in prison than there are in college," but his debt to the preacher goes much deeper. While Wright works his magic on enormous congregations, with the basic message of liberation theology, that we are everywhere in chains, but assured of deliverance by the living Christ, Obama, when on form, can entrance largely white audiences with the same essential story, told in secular terms and stripped of its references to specifically black experience. When Wright says "white racists," Obama says "corporate lobbyists"; when Wright speaks of blacks, Obama says "hard-working Americans," or "Americans without health care"; when Wright talks in folksy Ebonics, of "hos" and "mojo," Obama talks in refined Ivy League. But the essential design of the piece follows the same pattern as a Wright sermon, in its nicely timed transition from present injustice and oppression to the great joy coming in the morning."
This combination of yuppie smarts and black preacher man eloquence has made Obama the state-of-the-art politician, as impossible to pin down as the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2.