Editor’s Note: Beyond Obama

| May - June 2008

A few weeks ago, I was brainstorming with our publisher and editorial director, Bryan Welch, about images we could use to accompany this month’s cover feature, “Reimagining the American Dream.” Normally we make a game of going back and forth, but as soon as I described the stories we planned to publish, Bryan had a flash of inspiration.

Our stories are about reorienting expectations, not downward but outward: putting community interest before personal gain; reclaiming and reengaging our local political systems; fighting for people who keep our economy running, but can’t keep up; and demanding that, no matter where we are or what we’re fighting for, we play by the international rules. What better way to visually represent this optimistic agenda than to feature a portrait of Illinois senator Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign has energized a scared, skeptical nation?

Well, Bryan, I answered, professionally predisposed to argue, it’s true that a grassroots organizer and legal scholar with populist appeal is an attractive option. His rallies have the look, sound, and feel of a Hendrix concert. And, hey, if everyone who already dropped a dime for the guy bought a copy of the magazine, our interns could retire to San Francisco and work for a nonprofit.

On the other hand . . . when it comes to photo ops, Google hits, and histrionic headlines, citizen Obama is giving Britney Spears a run for the record books. Utne Reader normally goes out of its way not to endorse political candidates (especially if they’re on a ballot and could actually win). And if our readers are anything like me, campaign fatigue started setting in when Santa was climbing down a chimney in West Des Moines to hide coal in the Clinton family stockings.

Bryan humored me, just as I would when other folks in the office worried over similar hypotheticals. He knew that, whether Obama wins or loses the Democratic nomination (undecided as I write), his image already represents something beyond the reach of any one politician. On the stump, candidates have come to define this something as a yearning for “change,” already 2008’s most overused and abused catchword. The kind of hope Obama inspires is much deeper and more lasting than the accompanying sound bites, however.

Watching others watch him, I’m reminded of the first time I saw long-shot lefty Paul Wellstone, who would ultimately win back-to-back terms in the U.S. Senate.

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