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Obama's 'Audacious' Aura of Hope

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-Sen. Barack Obama insists that he's not running for president, but he is not exactly running away from it, either. Why should he? The Illinois Democrat has leaped further and faster into the public consciousness than any presidential hopeful in memory, based on one speech.

With media following him like flies to spilled honey all the way to Africa and back, he's kept up a full schedule of political speeches on behalf of Democrats nationwide and ranks as one of his party's most-requested fund-raising guests. Democrats seem more eager to be seen with him than Republicans candidates are to be seen with President Bush, who's been struggling to recover from recent approval ratings as low as 42 percent.

But can Obama go the distance as a presidential hopeful? When I caught up with him at a speech at Georgetown University, co-sponsored by the liberal political action group, last Wednesday (Sept. 20) he sounded mightily adept at pleasing the party's liberal-progressive base while sticking to his middle-of-the-road come-together principles. He's a realist, he told me backstage. "I'm also a believer in facts," he said.

Asked by a Newsweek reporter how he explains his own rock-star popularity, he paused for a moment to search for the right words, then said quite candidly, "Some of it's just dumb luck."

He came along at the right time, he said. "I think there's a hunger right now for Americans to come together and my campaign sort of captured that hope," he says. "I captured that in my speech (to the 2004 National Democratic Convention) and that seemed to resonate."

Good answer. Americans like to hear hope and optimism in their leaders. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton showed that. Obama wears the aura of optimism well, which plays particularly well these days, as both parties seem to be wearing curious shrouds of gloom.

With polls showing Democrats well positioned to retake one or both houses of Congress, one Republican consultant, who asked me to avoid using his name, expressed fear of a blowout for his party like that of 1974. President Richard M. Nixon's resignation released a stampede of Democratic "Watergate babies" that year into Congress who mostly dominated Congress until 1994.

Yet, a Democratic activist expressed the cautious pessimism of many of his partisans when he wondered half-facetiously, "I wonder how we're going to blow it this time." After their close election losses in 2000, 2002 and 2004, Democrats are slow to cheer their recent good fortunes. That's wise, especially since the recent gains of congressional Democrats in polls have come less from their own actions than from Republican blunders.

Besides, the coming mid-term elections are haunted by a looming reality: No matter which party wins, their majority is likely to be too slim to get much important legislation passed before the 2008 presidential campaign kicks in. The result could be the worst of both worlds for leaders of the next Congress: all of the blame for what's going wrong and not enough power to earn much glory.

That's led to some partisans on both sides to think the unthinkable: Could we be better off by losing?

Frustrated by Bush's dilution of conservative ideals - his expanded government, his deficit spending, defiance of the Constitution, his igniting a war he can't finish - some conservatives like National Review writers Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru (cq) think the GOP could use a sobering time-out to rediscover their soul in time for 2008.

"My fellow Republicans," declares the Republican satirist Christopher Buckley, catching the new mood in October's Washington Monthly, "Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may (expletive deleted) things up for a change."

Of course, we should not make too much of such loser-based observations. Democrats are too hungry to let this chance slip by, and gloomy conservatives may only be getting their rationalizations lined up before an expected loss of power.

Nevertheless, Obama may be right in his assertion that the country is ready, after years of polarized politics and wasteful bickering, for a new era of middle-ground cooperation. If so, that bodes well for a popular maverick like Arizona Sen. John McCain, if conservatives in his party's base don't get in his way.

The Democratic side is more complicated. Obama would be truly audacious to run for president in his first Senate term. Lack of Senate experience critically wounded the presidential aspirations of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in 2004, although he, like Obama, has made trips to Iowa lately. And frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has the experience but also a polarizing reputation that makes her fellow Democrats nervous.

With so much gloom around, no wonder Obama keeps looking better for victory-hungry Democrats. He has a new book coming out in October titled "The Audacity of Hope." It may not be only a coincidence that the book's title could describe a future Obama presidential campaign. The only question is, which year?

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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