Having already won the “favorite new face” primary with the press corps in a runaway, Barack Obama has now declared his intention to explore a presidential run. “I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in this position a year ago,” Illinois’s junior senator says modestly. But the folks back home who watched the smooth magna cum laude Harvard Law grad charm voters well beyond his political base in Chicago’s South Side can’t be surprised.
Observers marveled at Obama’s skills as early as his 2004 Senate campaign, when he was still a four-term state legislator. The recurring phrase in press coverage of Obama at the time was “supporters who disagree with him” — a sign of his broad appeal. A Senate campaign aide talked about enthusiastic backers who “start drinking the Obama juice,” and a GOP colleague of Obama’s in the legislature admitted, “In Republican circles, we’ve always feared that Barack would become a rock star of American politics.”
Count that fear as realized. His political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, is topping the bestseller lists (just as his autobiography did in 1995), and the media seem ready to anoint him a swimsuit model if they can’t make him president. At the moment, it is other Democratic presidential hopefuls who have the most to fear from Obama and his ability to project a soothing nonpartisan image in an age of political rancor. Obama is a better politician than recent contenders like Al Gore, Howard Dean, and John Kerry. And one can imagine Hillary Clinton seething at the injustice that yet another gifted charmer is posing a threat to her political ambitions.
The Democratic party is in a perpetual search for the next JFK, and it is Obama’s abiding strength among Democrats that he better fits that template than anyone else in the field.
Critics scoff that Obama is too green to be a serious presidential contender, but he must be taken seriously, like it or not. Politically, the senator’s inexperience in Washington can serve to absolve him of responsibility for the current unpopular state of affairs. His liberal voting record in the Senate, along with his impassioned speech against the war in Iraq in 2002, will play well in his antiwar party’s primaries. It probably will force the once pro-war Hillary to conclude that she has to move farther left, thus reinforcing her image as an over-calculating politician (her latest Iraq trip can be thought of as her “find an excuse to get more left on the war” tour).
Meanwhile, Obama’s brief record will provide fewer targets for the GOP than were available with the long-serving Kerry. And should Obama’s lack of any executive experience prove troubling to voters, he will no doubt argue that the current chief executive’s background in business and a governor’s mansion didn’t ensure success in the White House.
Senator Obama has yet to prove he can take a political punch, and, inevitably, he will experience a serious media downdraft at some point. These perilous times certainly call for a more experienced politician than Obama, and his utterly orthodox liberalism — whatever the seductions of its disarming presentation — is not the answer to the nation’s challenges. But voters have turned once before to a newcomer with thin experience in the midst of a dangerous international environment. His name was Jimmy Carter.