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The Obama Uncertainty Principle

Competing portraits of Barack Obama are working to his advantage.

By 8.1.08

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Quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg famously posited that it is impossible to precisely measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously. His "uncertainty principle," in popular usage, has come to mean that any attempt to observe something changes what is being observed.

This is becoming an accurate description of Barack Obama's quest for the White House.

When Obama suggested, weeks before visiting Iraq, that he could "refine" his 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq after meeting with commanders, he came under fire for flip-flopping on the signature issue of his campaign. Coming on the heels of his reversals on FISA, public financing, and gun rights, Obama was starting to look like John Kerry redux.

So Obama dug in, and reiterated his support for a 16-month withdrawal timetable, to be instituted regardless of the advice of commanders or conditions on the ground. But this drew criticism for recklessly putting ideology over sound strategy, and so in an interview with Newsweek this past weekend, Obama said the number of residual troops he would leave in Iraq would be "entirely conditions-based."

Losing presidential candidates tend to get stung by simple narratives. Michael Dukakis became known as the soft, bleeding-heart liberal in 1988, the elder President Bush was seen as out of touch in 1992, Al Gore was the serial exaggerator in 2000, and Kerry was the flip-flopper in 2004.

To anybody closely following his policy zigzags, Obama comes off looking very foolish, but his malleability has also made it difficult for John McCain to pin him down. Portraying him as a shameless flip-flopper who is tacking right during the general election makes Obama look less like a rigid liberal ideologue and more like a pragmatist, while pegging him as an uncompromising leftist undercuts the image of him as a flip-flopper.

This is not the only example in which competing portraits of Obama have worked to his advantage. From the time he began considering a presidential run, seasoned reporters and analysts described Obama as a wet behind the ears rookie who would be bulldozed by the Clinton juggernaut. The race was dubbed "Obambi vs. Hillzilla," after the cult classic cartoon in which the Japanese monster stomps the doe-eyed little deer.

IN THE END, Hillary Clinton would prove the perfect opponent for Obama, because the Clintons' long-established reputation as the most calculating political family in modern history obscured how devious Obama could be. As a result, the media -- and Democratic voters -- sided with the nice, innocent-seeming Obama over the nasty, cut-throat Clintons during the primaries.

Only after he vanquished Mrs. Inevitable and began his general election makeover did Obama start being portrayed as Machiavellian, and in a recent issue of the New Yorker, as an operator who had mastered the art of dirty machine politics in Chicago.

Once again, though, these portraits of Obama are difficult to reconcile. Obama may be a naive rube, or he may be Richard Nixon on steroids, but it's difficult to make the public see him as both at the same time.

Even the controversies that have caused the most problems for Obama -- his relationship with his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright and his comments that working class voters in small towns "cling" to guns and religion out of bitterness -- represent competing narratives.

The Wright episode highlighted his ties to the most offensive elements of the inner-city racial grievance industry, while "bitter-gate" made him appear as a Harvard-bred elitist.

BUT NOW, a new narrative is taking hold -- of Obama's hubris. The charge was once confined to conservative commentators, but none other than the Washington Post's Dana Milbank picked up on the theme this week, even referring to Obama as the "presumptuous nominee." From his introduction of a new presidential seal, to his Berlin rally in front of 200,000, to his declaration that "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," Obama has given analysts plenty of fodder.

While Americans like their presidents to be confident, the "hubris" label would be damaging to Obama, because his tremendous self-regard is inversely proportional to his actual accomplishments, and his opponent has served the nation with honor for decades.

But given Obama's consciousness of others' observations, his shape-shifting tendencies, and Machiavellian political skills, we should stay tuned. A humility offensive may be just around the corner.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein