The Obama candidacy, in its rocket-blast phase when he outsoared Hillary Clinton, drained the dictionaries of every superlative. The great "O" had them swooning in the stands. Why?
True, Oprah had passed her potent wand over him, but even the afternoon regent of a thousand therapies has stays on her sorcery. Mainly, his was very much a candidacy constructed by those who were drawn to him. If there was any meaning to that fortune-cookie poeticism that "we are the ones we have been waiting for," it was that his campaign was a feedback loop. People saw what they came to see. Mr. Obama was the slate; the crowds brought their own chalk.
This is the nature of Mr. Obama's particular kind of charisma. People project their best wishes on him, they fill in the blank of a very attractive and plausible outline. His is not, emphatically, a charisma of deeds. For what has he done, save run for president? He is an accommodating vessel - cool, smart, biracial and "unfinished." This is the Gatsby quality of him that others have noted. Like Gatsby, he is a receptacle of others' glamorous invention.
People see in him, or wish to see, the last great ideal of the American polity fulfilled, a final and full racial accommodation. That should he be elected president, America will have achieved, by his singular persona, the perfect emblematic demonstration of having exorcised at last the great stain of its racially riven origins.
Mr. Obama's charisma is, in this sense, external, something extended to the candidate. And it follows that that which is given may equally be taken away. The sparkle has, in fact, dimmed. He travels now in a lower orbit, closer to Earth - which is to say, he grows more mundane. The great word "hope" sounds less frequently now. He picks a running mate thick with the dust and rancour of many long years in Washington.
His acceptance speech in the Olympic-style stadium could not gather the inspirational energy of his earlier arias. Of late, the flash supernova of U.S. politics is seen "competing" with a second-on-the-ticket female governor of a remote state. There's more than a gap between the "audacity of hope" and "lipstick on a pig." The mouth that spoke the first phrase should not be capable of the second.
He has shrunk into a combative partisan. He crowds his own screen, leaves less space for projection. Others are not writing his narrative now - he's inscribing his own.
A candidacy that leached so much of its energy and drive from the imagination of others, Gatsby-like, is shedding its gift. The narrative stage is over. It's all tactics from here on in.