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For Paper Of Record, A Curious A1 Choice

The Times’s promise to investigate the failure of the “Obama effect” turns into a weird puff piece for a Massachusetts State Senate candidate.

By Nathan Pippenger

This morning’s Times makes a stark declaration: “Obama Effect Inspiring Few to Seek Office,” it says on page A1, above the fold. I began reading, driven by several questions: Was that what people meant by the “Obama effect”—that it would create a generation of young politicians? How did they manage to measure the number of young people running for office, and to count how many of those people were doing so because they were inspired by the President? And with nearly three years remaining in his second term, isn’t this judgment a little hasty? But the Times didn’t answer any of those questions, because the piece wasn’t about the “Obama effect” at all.

The warning signs start early on. A few paragraphs in, the piece retreats from its opening claim that few Obama supporters are seeking office, limply insisting that “it appears” some of them are. (Reader beware: This weak formulation means there will be no data forthcoming to support the piece’s claims.) What passes for evidence are two brief quotes from pollsters. The first says that only 35 percent of young people think running for office is “an honorable endeavor”—which is interesting, but irrelevant. Another pollster blames, as the piece puts it, “a social media-addled generation accustomed to instant gratification.” (The Times still can’t write about young people.) “They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer,” the pollster says. It’s those damn young people! They’re not accustomed to the slow, deliberative pace of American politics.

So if we’re not getting answers to these questions, what do we get? A 1,400-word dispatch on the not-very-unusual campaign of Eric Lesser, “an earnest, hug-prone 29-year-old candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate.” Lesser, who never seems to go a few months without being profiled in the paper of record, was formerly an official at the White House Council of Economic Advisers who now spends his time visiting diner patrons and posing for awkward photo-ops at tech firms. The piece is sympathetic to this decision, even giving him space to promote himself by gently admonishing old White House colleagues who opted for lucrative consulting gigs.

Gradually, the article loses even the semblance of its initial thesis. This is indicated by another verbal warning sign: Lesser is described as “both an exemplar and exception of the Obama generation.” I have no idea what this means. He’s certainly exceptional: For one thing, he’s getting campaign advice from David Axelrod and David Plouffe, and he’s planning to ask Obama himself for advice on one of his trips back to the White House. These, to put it lightly, are not options available to most state senate candidates.

But is he also an “exemplar” of the power of the Obama effect? Perhaps, in his pre-White House days, Lesser was a cynical, easily-distracted, Internet-addicted millennial who was inspired by Obama to get involved. This could rescue the piece after all—if not for a closing scene right at the end, where Lesser and the reporter travel past the candidate’s high school, “where he served as class president all four years.” Sounds like he didn’t need the Obama effect after all.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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