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Open Your Eyes, Obama: You Need 'Vision Thing'

By Tom Bevan

So the skinny kid with the funny name has taken the first step toward trying to become president of the United States. Sen. Barack Obama has already demonstrated he's loaded with traits that make him a formidable challenger for the Democratic nomination: incredible charisma, plenty of smarts, excellent rhetorical skills. Just as importantly, there's little doubt Obama has the ability to raise the insane gobs of money over the next 12 months -- $100 million or more -- that it will take to make him competitive.

What Obama doesn't have right now, however, and what he must find quickly, is "the vision thing" -- a rationale that will sustain support for his candidacy through the long, grueling primary process after the novelty and initial euphoria of his bid inevitably wears away.

Those who were hoping to catch a glimpse of "the vision thing" in Obama's announcement earlier this week came away disappointed, because the senator didn't offer one.

Instead, Obama informed us on Tuesday that despite the magnitude of the problems he sees facing the country, it's the "smallness of our politics" that concerns him most. "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence," Obama said, "that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first."

While you'd be hard pressed to find many people willing to disagree with the sentiment Obama expressed, that doesn't necessarily make it a compelling rationale for his candidacy.

To the contrary, Obama's call to "change our politics" is a platitude, not a policy -- and one that's been used many times before. Yes, in theory most people would prefer for our elected leaders to get along with less partisanship and bitterness, but first we'd rather know where it is they intend to lead us.

Policy proposals help inform us about a candidate's principles and values, which is what most people ultimately vote for. Obama's challenge is to demonstrate there is some animating principle behind his desire to lead, something beyond just being a smart, handsome, likeable guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Despite two years in the national limelight as a senator, a 362-page best-selling book, and an unprecedented spate of media coverage, things remain a bit hazy with Obama. He hasn't seemed to grab on to or champion any specific issue, nor has he come up with any notably innovative legislative proposals. And while Obama's statement on Tuesday wasn't meant to be comprehensive by any means, it also didn't offer any new clues about where he would take the country as president.

The biggest reason Obama needs to get "the vision thing" as quickly as possible is because he's violating the cardinal rule of politics: Define yourself before somebody else does it for you.

That rule is doubly true in Obama's case given that his biggest weakness is a lack of experience. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are both savvy, battle-tested politicians eager to exploit Obama's vulnerabilities. The sooner Obama can crisply and confidently define and defend his "vision" for leading the country in terms of policy, the less people will care about his relatively thin political resume.

If Tuesday's announcement was a brief dress rehearsal, Obama has much work to do before the curtain officially rises on his run for president three weeks from Saturday in Springfield. A clarion call to "change our politics" is all well and good, but it's not nearly enough to carry him to the White House. Obama needs to convince a plurality of those in his party -- and then a majority of those in the country -- that he does indeed get "the vision thing."

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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