Obamania is in full swing. As John Podhoretz wrote recently in the New York Post, the junior senator from Illinois is the “Rorschach Candidate,” onto whom the electorate (or at least the media) is projecting their presidential hopes for 2008.
While Barack Obama is surely feeling giddy given the press adulation and the reception he has received in places like New Hampshire, if he is as smart as people seem to think then his run will be designed completely as a negotiating point with the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Instead of going for the top job now, Obama would be better served using this media wave to get himself a Cabinet post in a Clinton administration. This would in turn enable him to lock in the presidential nomination–and perhaps the presidency itself–in 2012 or 2016.
This strategy would solve a number of problems. First, it would satisfy the left-wing Democratic base. Obama, in his short life as a senator, has a consistently liberal voting record. In a general election, this would surely come out and hurt him were he to run for President. As a potential Cabinet nominee, however, that danger would be muted. Obama would be able to work under the protection of a centrist Clinton administration without having to modulate his positions too much.
Second, a Cabinet perch would give Obama what he really lacks: experience, expertise, and a national speaking platform to increase his profile and recognition by voters. As a state legislator and now as a senator, Obama has had to cast votes, but he has not had a leadership position. As a Cabinet member, Obama would be able to garner experience as a member of the executive branch, and to transform his largely media-built image into more lasting support among voters (especially independents). He would also be able to use the time to build up expertise in a particular area to bolster a future presidential run, at the same time distancing himself from the more extreme liberal positions he took as a legislator.
Right now, Obama has no area of expertise to offer that could prove a match to Hillary or any likely Republican nominee. His positions on issues like foreign affairs, national security, and law enforcement, whatever their value, have been untried by experience. And don’t forget, he is still young at 45: Waiting for his turn, while being in the national spotlight as a cabinet member for four or eight years, would be the perfect preparation for the main event.
Finally, and more practically, brokering a deal like this would allow Hillary and the Democratic power brokers to concentrate the fundraising and campaigning, while assuring Obama a place at the table should Clinton win. Already there have been articles about Democratic strategists feeling torn about staying with Hillary or heeding the Obama siren song. This will only get worse as the months go by, and if the Democrats really want to capture the executive in 2008 and build on their congressional gains, it would pay to get the biggest primary challenger inside the Clinton tent. Declining a presidential run now would still allow the media access to their favorite, and would build up good will with party donors. It would also let Obama continue to gather crowds and make the occasional primetime TV appearance. In other words, Obama could still be an asset to keep the swing voters, especially religious ones, in (or at least near) the Democratic tent as long as Obama is around.
So, if he were smart, he would let us forget about the idea of President Obama for now, and help us get used to hearing “Mr. Secretary.”
– Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman. His book on the thought of Russell Kirk will be published this summer by the University of Missouri Press.