Buffy the Cynicism Slayer: Behind the Obama Phenomenon
To really understand the Obama phenomenon, you should know Buffy Wicks. Yes, Buffy is her real name. Yes, she gets that question every day. Her job is grassroots organizer or in campaign lingo, "field operations specialist." More specifically, she is the Western Regional Field Director for Obama for America, and she personifies what the Obama movement is all about. I've known Buffy for seven years. We first met when she was a student and I was a guest scholar at a graduate program in Castellon, Spain. Although she was only 23 at the time and I was (in professional status only) her superior, Buffy's extraordinary self-possession both intimidated and fascinated me. We became friends, and over the years, my awe at her passion, eloquence, and conviction never waned.
When Buffy first sent out an email awhile back saying she had taken a job with the Barak Obama campaign, I remember thinking "I hope these people realize who they've got." Well, they obviously do. Buffy's primary task has been to help transform the support for the Obama campaign from a simple voter base to a movement. And as a longtime Buffy fan, it comes as no surprise that she's succeeding. Or for that matter, that her professional status has eclipsed mine.
Buffy is in some ways an anomaly. She is blonde, athletic, and pretty, but also disarmingly unpretentious. People are drawn to Buffy because they see themselves in her, much like they do her current boss. She is approachable, but Buffy has more than charisma; she has presence. She cares. She is both fearless and vulnerable. She's scarily smart, but down to earth. Hopeful but not jaded. Bold. Tenacious. Empowered. A feminist and an animal activist on one hand, tough but compassionate on the other. She combines strong conviction with open-mindedness. She's indefatigable. And she is totally authentic. Buffy has a way of getting you to examine your perspective by forcing you to clarify it. She doesn't just ask what you think, she asks why. She wants to understand you. She challenges you to inspire her. She embodies the concept of civic engagement. She walks the walk and expects those around her to do the same. Buffy is the only person I've ever met who has made me laugh so hard that it triggered an asthma attack. She's also the only person who had me crying so hard that I had to pull over the car I was driving at the time.
It gives me enormous confidence in Senator Obama that he has obviously seen- and appreciates- these qualities in Buffy, and more importantly, that he entrusts her with the task of linking his principles and platform to real people. Buffy is largely responsible for the campaign's assertion that support for Obama is personal (and by extension, more profound and committed than Clinton's support, which is largely based on pragmatic or strategic concerns.)
Obama's detractors claim that his campaign is overly idealistic and disconnected from reality. I'm here to tell you that with people like Buffy onboard, it's clear that what makes Senator Obama such a formidable candidate is that he is actually more connected to reality than anyone else on the political horizon. It's the movement's authenticity - not its idealism-that makes Obama's competition nervous. It's not about a slogan or rhetoric. Those things can be spun. People cannot.
In the face of - indeed, because of-her own tribulations (including having to comfort a friend after learning of his HIV diagnosis and his simultaneous confession that he couldn't afford health insurance), Buffy chose to engage with hope, rather than withdraw in frustration. In confronting an increasingly consumerist, self-focused, and cynical society, we need people like Buffy to remind us that we can do better. We need them to remind us that we can be better citizens and people, and that, as it turns out, we still live in a democratic society. Buffy, like Mr. Obama, didn't choose her work for notoriety or fortune, but because she thinks that we need her. And she's right.
Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the State University of New York at Brockport. She specializes in political development, nonviolent social movements, and quality of democracy.