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Obama Fever: Casting 2008

By Barry Casselman

When I wrote recently about the initial impact of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's surprise withdrawal from the 2008 presidential race, I did not mention Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama as a candidate. That was before his announcement that he was reconsidering earlier statements that he had no intention to run. Several of my readers thought I had either missed the Obama boat, or it was a lapse. It was neither.

Mr. Obama was elected to the Senate only two years ago. He has no executive experience. The office in question is the presidency, arguably the toughest job in the world, requiring not only decisiveness, but vision, ability to manage and delegate, stamina, concentration and determination. Mr. Obama has had little chance to demonstrate any of these. He does have many abilities, including a gift for communication, a sense of humor, intelligence and a certain refreshing modesty and self-deprecation. His future is bright, and he eventually may be the first president of the United States from Hawaii (where he was born).

Until Mr. Warner's withdrawal, there was no serious talk of Mr. Obama in 2008, except perhaps as a vice presidential candidate. That was because Mr. Warner was solidifying his position as the new face on the political block, and the major challenger to Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York (via Illinois and Arkansas). Even though there are serious alternative candidates, including, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, as well as a leftwing candidate, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, the expectation that it would be a showdown between Mr. Warner and Mrs. Clinton has produced, if nothing else, a media vacuum.

I like Mr. Obama. He often thinks imaginatively and unconventionally. He is ultimately a centrist in a party which needs much more centrism than it is displaying now. He also has begun to show signs of political skill. I think his current "reconsideration" is just a ploy to put off the unseemly clamor of media pressure that was suddenly thrown at him, and that after a suitable time (and the mid-term elections), he will will restate his desire to finish at least one term in the Senate, and gain some valuable and critical experience.

In fact, I have a suggestion for Mr. Obama and his party. Sen. Harry Reid, the minority leader, has become embroiled in a scandal from which he is unlikely to emerge without great damage. His leadership role even before this was received poorly by the American public, and it seems unwise for his party to elect him leader, either in the majority or minority, in the next term. Since Mr. Obama has already demonstrated communication skills, and is being mentioned for much higher office, why not make him the senate leader? It would be an excellent opportunity for him to learn and demonstrate his management and executive skills for a future presidential race, and Mr. Obama would be a much better spokesman for his party.

In any event, all speculation about 2008 must now wait until we have midterm results this year. The expectation, as of this writing, is so high for a Democratic sweep in less than two weeks that it now appears that the Democrats must win control of both houses of Congress in order to have a true victory and early momentum for 2008. This expectation has not yet been created by the voters themselves, but by pundits, consultants, pollsters and party operatives. Yet most polls of close races show leading candidates below 50 percent, and within the margin of error. A relatively large undecided vote remains, much of which probably consists mostly of those who usually vote Republican, but feel ambivalent in the current political climate. (If Republican Chair Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove have no clear strategy to bring these voters home, they will surely lose the election by a wide margin.)

Most Democratic optimism centers on the House, where 40 seats or more now seem suddenly in play to some degree. The Senate is more difficult because the Democrats basically have to win every contested seat, including four of their own. If it's a blowout, of course, it will happen, and the Democrats will have a 51-49 majority. This, however, counts likely Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman plus a number of maverick centrist Democrats such as Sens. Carper (Delaware), Lincoln (Arkansas), Bayh (Indiana), the Nelsons (Florida and Nebraska), Landrieu (Louisiana) and Salazar (Colorado). But we're getting head of ourselves. The voters have not yet told us what they think they want.

There are countertrends to the Democratic "wave" beginning to appear in the polling (such as it is) in Tennessee, New Jersey, Virginia, Montana. Maryland, and Missouri. House races now appear to be tightening. Perhaps some other races will come into play in the Senate, and the formidable Republican GOTV system will be tested anew.

The next 10 days should be fascinating.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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