This is less about me, and more about you. That was Barack Obama's explanation for his rock-star welcome in New Hampshire last weekend. The possible presidential candidate said he's become a "symbol" of voters' desire for "something new."
Such self-deprecation could be sincere sentiment – or it could be skilled political rhetoric. It doesn't matter which, though, because the words of the junior senator from Illinois are true.
People don't know much about this Democratic fresh face; he's too inexperienced to have a long political track record. But they're obviously responding positively to what he symbolizes: a call to reach across the partisan and ideological divide in America.
What voters are looking for in 2008 is "someone who is seen as independent and detached from the traditional centers of power of each party," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan polling and research group.
Those qualities aren't the sole purview of any single candidate, though. Indeed, the field that's shaping up (and these look to be about two dozen so far), contains several examples of folks who have reached across the aisle.
John McCain, the senator from Arizona and an expected Republican presidential candidate, has earned a reputation for independence. In his 2000 presidential bid he criss-crossed the country in his "Straight Talk Express" bus. He can pull any number of bipartisan credentials from his pocket, including campaign-finance reform.
And what would you call, for instance, former GOP mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, who brought his city together after 9/11? A unifier perhaps? And yes, the rap on New York Sen. Hillary Clinton – the accepted Democratic presidential front-runner – may be that she's polarizing, but didn't she and her husband storm the country in 1992 as "new Democrats," i.e., centrists? She's made a concerted effort to work with Senate Republicans, including a 2005 bill she co-sponsored with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham related to incentives for domestic manufacturing.
Senator Obama is tapping into a public desire for a unified approach to today's challenges. "There's a moment that we are living through in our history right now where we've got a series of very important decisions to make, and we have the opportunity to make them, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans," he said last weekend. As the son of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, he literally embodies cross-cultural and cross-racial unity.
But it's not as if Obama is stripped of ideology. He's pro-choice, pro- affirmative action, and supports "universal" health care – traditional Democratic causes. The National Journal, a nonpartisan publication, gave him an 82.5 liberalism rating, higher than Sen. Clinton (79.8).
McCain, meanwhile, has been insisting that he's more conservative than people think he is. Last May for instance, he spoke at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University – after blasting him for intolerance in 2000. So, is his conservative claim a feint to partisan primary voters or true confessions?
Voters indeed may yearn for a candidate above the political fray. But will they be able to recognize one?