The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

The Obama Critique Takes Shape


A little while back, after my here’s-what’s-likeable-about-the-GOP-frontrunners post, a reader e-mailed in and asked what, if anything, positive I would say about the Democratic frontrunners. Here’s what I wrote back about Obama: 

I’m still learning about the Illinois Senator; so far my assessment is that he seems like a good man who might not make a good president. I saw in an interview last year him talking about losing a political race early in his career; he said he learned from the experience that losing a race is not the end of the world, and so he doesn’t really fear “losing.” I think this comes across in his speeches, his interviews, etc.; he is pleasant, respectful, but not craven or desperate for votes. He seems very relaxed and at home with who he is; he won’t pull a Clinton, Gore or Kerry and try to be who his audience wants him to be. I think his “I want to unite us” rhetoric is genuine; I don’t think there’s another Democrat out there so gracious or respectful to his opponents. (See his feeling of “shame” after learning his campaign literature called pro-lifers “extremists.”) Another interesting thing is the degree to which he’s been in [a version of the pubic] spotlight and under scrutiny for so much of his adult life; first black editor of Harvard Law Review, etc. He’s been a trailblazer, and I’m sure that comes with its own pressures. 

Like I said, good man; I’m a little wary of how he will handle the pressures of the office, leadership in a national crisis, etc.

And in recent days, bit by bit, we’re seeing the case against Obama take shape. The short version: Good man – maybe even an exceptionally decent man – but not a bold man, and far from a proven leader. If his appeal is that he is a ‘fresh face,’ that is another way of saying, ‘people don’t know much about him’, which is selling point for a cipher.


Two righty voices recently assessed Obama’s books. First, the often-must-read Andrew Ferguson
He’s appalled at the budget deficit, for example, and he’s determined to fix it. But beyond that — well, let him explain the details.  “We know what to do,’’ he writes. “We can cut and consolidate nonessential programs. We can rein in spending on health care costs. We can eliminate tax credits that have outlived their usefulness and close loopholes that let corporations get away with paying no taxes.’’  

The book is filled with passages that follow the same pattern: belaboring the obvious on the assumption that no one has ever had dared speak such bromides before, and then concluding the discussion with a rear-guard blast at those cynical politicians who “refuse to make the tough choices.’’


Rather than make his own tough choices, the 45-year-old Democrat prefers to float on a high level of abstraction. This, indeed, is how he is able to appeal to all segments of his party as well as large numbers of independents and even many conservatives and Republicans.

Dean Barnett, writing about Obama’s first book, ‘Dreams From My Father,” at

What struck me about this book is how modest an effort it was for a future politician. Throughout the book, we get the picture of Obama as a supremely talented but ultimately passive guy. Stuff just seems to happen to him. Some of this is really interesting stuff, like being born to parents who each went through multiple spouses and left Obama with half-siblings scattered across the earth. But it’s almost a little disconcerting that Obama didn’t trace his path from Hawaii to Occidental College to Harvard Law to managing editor of the Law Review.  One thing that was crystal clear from his book that Obama has a unique ability to serve as a vessel for the ambitions and dreams of others. Whether it was his grandparents or his mother or his far-flung African family, they all had a lot invested in their hopes for “Barry.” Suffused in the book was the unstated fact that Obama has an innate characteristic that makes others project their dreams onto him. …Having read Obama’s first book, I’m convinced that this trait has been the key to his political success to date. Others invest their hopes in him, and he rides their investment to victory. In many ways Obama is a pedestrian and orthodox politician; no grand plans or displays of leadership have marked his public life. His ideology is the most hackneyed form of liberalism, the kind that stopped being progressive over a generation ago. 

In some ways, Obama almost seems like an accidental presidential candidate. His Senate seat was almost bequeathed to him; his top-tier presidential status was definitely bequeathed to him. On paper, there is nothing that this man has done that would make you say, “He should be president.”

Peggy Noonan, spotting this back in December:

He has obvious appeal. I asked a Young Democrat college student why he liked him. After all, I said, he has little experience. That’s part of what I like, he said. “He’s not an insider, he’s not just a D.C. politician.”


He is uncompromised by a past, it is true. He is also unburdened by a record, unworn by achievement, unwearied by long labors.  What does he believe? What does he stand for? This is, after all, the central question. When it is pointed out that he has had almost–almost–two years in the U.S. Senate, and before that was an obscure state legislator in Illinois, his supporters compare him to Lincoln. But Lincoln had become a national voice on the great issue of the day, slavery. He rose with a reason. Sen. Obama’s rise is not about a stand or an issue or a question; it is about Sen. Obama. People project their hopes on him, he says.  He’s exactly right. Just so we all know it’s projection.

Finally, this criticism was bound to be noted by some of his rivals, and yesterday, Joe Biden, assessing his rival’s position on Iraq:

“I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.”

I much prefer a candidate whose persona is that of a nice guy to the alternatives, and whose keywords are respect and manners over, say, ”YEARRRRGH!” But at some point, a leader has to actually make decisions, and those decisions will inevitably upset somebody.

Tags: Barack Obama , Bill Richardson , Chris Dodd , Fred Thompson , Hillary Clinton , Horserace , Joe Biden , John Edwards , John McCain , Mike Huckabee , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Rudy Giuliani , Sarah Palin , Something Lighter , Tommy Thompson


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