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Obama Rolls the Dice

By Jay Cost

From 1997 to 2005, Barack Obama was the state senator for one of the most liberal places in the United States - the Southside Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park.

Home to the University of Chicago, Hyde Park, like many Chicago neighborhoods, has enjoyed a renaissance in the last 15 years. While it is by no means "hip" - the U of C is, after all, where "fun comes to die" - this beautiful neighborhood has become a destination for those looking for what magazine writers these days call "urban living." It is also one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the country. It largely consists of University of Chicago students, relatively well-to-do African-Americans, and relatively well-to-do urban whites.

Politically, this means that its representatives in the state legislature can travel as far to the left as they desire, substantively and temperamentally. When your constituency consists of the most strongly partisan types of Democrats you can find in America, you need not worry about compromising with Republicans, or even being nice to them.

Yet, Obama built for himself a reputation for consensus-building in the state senate. He worked with Republicans on many issues, and was well liked. This is obviously a sign of several political qualities that will come in handy for the presidential campaign of the junior senator from Illinois. Not only is he amiable, but - quite unlike strong partisans on both sides of the aisle - he does not seem to suffer from the narrow-minded presumption that those who disagree must be either stupid or acting in bad faith. These are not the only qualities that recommend Obama. His personality is captivating. And, furthermore, the man is obviously intelligent. All in all, he seems to be a smart, politically astute, charismatic, and thoroughly decent fellow.

Juxtapose this with his incredible good fortune these last few years, and one cannot but wonder if he is a man of destiny. And if he has decided that his destiny is to be the 44th President, who are we to question him?

But then there is the issue of that résumé. After two years in the U.S. Senate, he is running for President? Has he even been in Washington long enough to be able to direct a tourist from Capitol Hill to the White House without getting him lost?

I am not interested in getting into whether Obama's résumé is too short to be President in this day and age. I will say that, should Obama become the 44th President, he would certainly not be the least "qualified" man to acquire the office. Depending upon how you count qualifications, he might not even be below average. Of course, this does not mean that, as a purely political matter, Obama's résumé will not be a liability; that will be up to his opponents.

This is, as best I can tell, as far as the analysis of Obama has gone. His strengths and weaknesses are tallied and then weighed. Unfortunately, this does not get us very far. The reason is that there is a set of qualities required for a presidential campaign that virtually no other task requires. So, nobody knows whether first-time candidates have the skill set needed to be good contenders. Thus, the current lists of biographical debits and credits are of little help because the ledger is incomplete. For instance, Rudy Giuliani, if he has this skill set, can indeed win the over the social conservatives. If he lacks it, he cannot. Who knows whether he has this skill set? We have not seen him campaign yet.

Fortunately for us, Obama has tipped his hand. He has not only announced that he intends to campaign, he has actually sketched out his vision for it. The following bit from this week's announcement struck me as such:

"The decisions that have been made in Washington these past six years, and the problems that have been ignored, have put our country in a precarious place. ...

But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions." (Emphasis Mine)

This fits precisely with what Obama gained a reputation for in Springfield and with his Democratic keynote address. This is a major theme in this man's life; it has been important to him for years. It appears as though it will be his theme in his presidential bid: to move forward, we must first change the tone; I am the man to do that.

Obama, unlike the rest in the field, today offers a reason for his run, a compelling and broad-based one at that. This is one of those skills that separate the successful presidential candidates from the other eminent also-rans: they can form an easily accessible, widely compelling and coherent reason to explain why they - rather than anybody else - should be president.

Thus, we can indeed evaluate an Obama candidacy beyond a bland tallying of biographical strengths and weaknesses. We have a taste of his overarching message, i.e. that which links his various policy pronouncements to him as a person.

Many different types of overarching messages, or themes, have been tried over the years. Sometimes, the theme is one that offers steady stewardship via wide and deep knowledge of the government. Herbert Hoover and George H.W. Bush offered this. Sometimes, it offers results via knowledge of the mechanics of Congress. Bob Dole and John Kerry both offered this. Sometimes, it offers a "third way" via a candidate's youthful vigor and/or prior distance from Washington. Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all offered this.

There are, of course, no hard-and-fast rules about these themes. In some years, a certain theme will work. In other years, the same theme will fail. So, they depend a lot on the national political context. Nevertheless, what is most often the case is that the message - when it is most effective - emanates naturally from the candidate's personality and actions-to-date. It is not independent of biography, but rather deeply connected to it.

Obama's message is similar to none of those just mentioned. This makes sense. He really lacks the qualities to effectively offer any of them. His knowledge of the government is, comparatively speaking, narrow and shallow. His time in Congress is insufficient to be an effective manager of it. There also seems to be no third way here, at least in terms of substance. By all accounts, he seems to be a liberal Democrat with the kind of opinions we expect liberal Democrats to hold.

What Obama seems to offer is a respite from pettiness as a necessary prelude for policy breakthroughs. Seen in the context of his legislative record, his offer to the public is not a substantive transcendence of partisan politics. It is, rather, a spiritual transcendence from small-minded partisan sentimentality. He does not necessarily view the world differently from the most senior, or most liberal, members of his caucus. Rather, he has a personal orientation to the other side that is more congenial - that recognizes that their point of view, even if it might be wrong, is nevertheless valid and honest. He intends to change the tone.

Recognize that last sentence? You should. Obama '08 - at least at this point - has much in common with Bush '00. It also has much in common with Eisenhower '52. The fact that this sort of tactic has been attempted periodically - with a good measure of success - implies that, at certain times in our nation's political life, it is a very effective way to acquire the White House. Let's consider the case of Ike a little more closely to tease out some initial insights about Obama's chances.

Following the death of Roosevelt, the nation endured several long, dark years. The transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy was not easy for America. The rise of Communism in Eastern Europe and China, not to mention the Soviets' increasing mastery of the science behind nuclear weaponry, spoiled the hope that the post-war period would be a reasonably peaceful one. Partisanship, unsurprisingly, grew to a fevered pitch on both foreign and domestic fronts. The House of Representatives changed hands twice during Truman's presidency - and the presidential campaign of 1948 was a bitter, partisan battle. Eisenhower - having most recently served as Supreme Commander of NATO - had been uninvolved in all of this. He thus could return home and run against "Korea, Communism and Corruption." He offered - and delivered - a politics that was not what good government types might call "crassly partisan." Journalist Marquis Child summed up the essence of Eisenhower's candidacy in the following manner: "(Eisenhower) was above politics. That was part of his attraction for a people who tend to regard the political process as, at best, a dubious luxury, an expensive kind of game in which we are forever indulging the players. In so many respects he was uncommitted, a clean slate on which each citizen could write his own hopes and aspirations."

This seems quite similar to what Obama offers us - though a major difference is that, while Ike was indifferent regarding the partisan divisions of the day, Obama is not. He will not so much channel the substantive opinions (or lack thereof) of Eisenhower, but rather the old soldier's good-nature and congeniality. A vote for Obama - above all - will be a vote for a temperament. All politicians pay lip service to this kind of politics, but this seems like it will be the centerpiece of the Obama '08 campaign.

Can this message be sold next year? I think it can. It fits these times, does it not? Then again, it might not be as sellable in future times. 2008 could be a big year for partisan transcendentalism; 2012, 2016, 2020? - maybe not. As I mentioned, some themes work in one year and fail in another. In another year, we might be less sick of partisanship. Somewhere down the line, we might actually want a little partisanship!

The next question: how will Obama sell this? This is where biography returns to give us some real purchase on the man's prospects. There is no doubt that Obama's personality exudes this kind of warmhearted partisan transcendentalism - and that, like all great presidential candidates, there is something genuine at the core of his campaign. An Obama campaign would be an honest campaign, which is a trait that Democratic candidates have lacked since, ironically enough, Bill Clinton. But is being genuinely committed to a winning message sufficient for winning? No. People liked Perot's message in 1992 but rejected Perot because of doubts about his capacity to offer what he promised. So, much depends upon who is doing the selling. One of the reasons Eisenhower could sell his particular message was that he was a firmly established authority figure who had accomplished much without partisanship. His promise to do the same in the White House was thus credible. This begs the question that all of us will eventually ask: by what authority does Obama offer this promise? It cannot be the authority of his résumé. Ultimately, the answer seems to be his magnetism and earnestness. He is a charming and honest-seeming guy - that's how he will sell this idea. His personality, rather than his past accomplishments, will be what convinces or fails to convince people to buy.

A third question is one I cannot begin to answer: will America buy this from him? There is just no precedent to use here. I cannot think of any presidential candidate as serious as Obama who has needed to make as much use of his personality as Obama does. And I certainly think that television is a necessary condition for this type of candidacy. There is no way this kind of campaign would work 60 years ago. So, Obama is in uncharted water.

Ultimately, then, Obama's résumé could loom quite large in his campaign - despite the fact that it is longer than many past presidents. The reason is that Obama is attempting a message that will require heft, a heft that cannot be culled from the résumé . If he was headed in another thematic direction, say the "fresh face" campaign of Carter in 1976 or Perot in 1992, a lack of political experience could actually be a positive for him. But that is not the direction Obama seems to seek. He seems to claim that he can move our political spirit beyond partisanship. If there was substantial evidence on his résumé that he can indeed do this, he would be better off. Barring that, it all boils down to his personality.

Thus, we see the risk that Obama is taking. On the one hand, he might stand a better chance if he waited a few years. A stint as governor of a diverse state like Illinois, including a sort of reelection-by-unanimous-consent, would help build the kind of résumé that goes along with this sort of message. On the other hand, we might not be in the mood for this sort of message by the time his credentials are fully burnished.

Of course, there is risk associated with almost every presidential bid. Only a few candidates - Washington in 1788, Jackson in 1828, Roosevelt in 1932 - are a perfect match for their times. The rest must roll the dice in the belief that what about them fits the nation is more valuable than what does not. The wager Obama placed this week is that the country's desire for partisan transcendence will be greater than its skepticism about his capacity to deliver it.

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