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Why is Obama So Strong?

By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- When I left the country for a few weeks of summer travel overseas, the conventional wisdom was that the phenomenon of 2007, Barack Obama, had plateaued and was on his way to becoming a fascinating footnote in Hillary Clinton's methodical march to the Democratic nomination for president.

In fact, I more or less thought that myself. The senator from New York was collecting money like a big church in Texas. She was supported by most of the party's weary mandarins. She was the kind of programmed and practiced candidate, to the point of boredom, who was unlikely to make many mistakes -- and it is usually blunders that decide elections. Obama, charming and likable, seemed more likely to be Gary Hart than John F. Kennedy.

Wrong!

I came back, and there was Obama on the cover of most every serious magazine in the country. Newsweek placed him over the headline, "How Barack Obama Is Shaking Up the Campaign." More interesting, he was the cover of the conservative American Spectator over the line, silver-plated, "An Age of Obama?"

Why? Polls indicated that Clinton had withstood the challenge, holding a 10-point lead among Democrats over the young senator from Illinois. ("Young" is relative; Obama is three years older than Kennedy was when he was elected president.) But still, he was getting larger crowds, raising more money. Most important, he was raising that money from more than twice as many donors. People wanted to be part of this thing.

Why?

I think the answer was in a one-paragraph item at the bottom of page A19 of last Tuesday's New York Times. The paper reported that approval levels for Washington, both the presidency and the Congress, were at all-time lows, generally below 20 percent.

At the same time, other polls indicated that more that 75 percent of Americans answer "no" when asked whether "the country is going in the right direction."

And why not? We are sending young men and women, and reservists not so young, to die or be maimed in a foolish and unnecessary war. The great majority of the nation believes (or knows) that, but in Washington the president will never admit it, and the Congress does not have the courage to shout that the emperor has no clothes. The air in the war capital is thick with delusion and lies.

It is not just the war. The chief law enforcement officer of the country, the attorney general, is obviously incompetent, a fool or a liar -- probably all three. No one has really done anything about that, either.

Then there is science, all the disciplines that depend on exact truth, real provable facts, and on openness and transparency of results. Science is a cumulative, serial effort in which the work or discoveries or theories of one person or group provide the facts and platform for the next. On the day I returned home, a former surgeon general of the United States sat before Congress and said, under oath, that the people running the country, or at least the executive branch, are deliberately hiding the truth about a range of scientific subjects from global warming to stem cell research.

"Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried," said Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as the government's chief medical officer from 2001 to 2005. "I was blocked at every turn. Stand down. Don't talk about it."

It sounded very much like the Middle Ages. This is America? This my country?

Barack Obama is an attractive, intelligent, thoughtful man -- perhaps the campaign will show him to be too thoughtful -- who because of race and background is the candidate who symbolizes change, a new direction to a nation seemingly convinced we are on the wrong path.

Are his politics that different from, say, Hillary Clinton's? Probably not. But he can claim to come from a different place, and she is clearly part of the establishment, the established order.

Obama seems new. To an American coming home, he seems not to be offering just a new choice, but a second chance. He may fade -- stuff happens -- but a new chance may be enough in a country full of disillusion.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate


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