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By Jay Cost

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Obama: Promise and Peril

Over the past few weeks, I have been examining the major presidential candidates (see my earlier essays on Hillary Clinton and John Edwards). Today, I continue this project with an analysis of Barack Obama's candidacy, which I initially reviewed in January.

I like Obama. He seems to recognize that most of our political problems do not admit of obvious answers, and that the people who disagree with his particular answers are neither evil nor ignorant. Even though our answers mostly diverge, he displays the kind of intelligence, perceptiveness, and empathy that I appreciate in a Chief Executive.

Furthermore, Obama has run a top-rate political organization to date. I think that he is well positioned to capture the nomination. He has established himself as the liberal - or, perhaps better put, the "authentically Democratic" - alternative to Hillary Clinton. But, he has not risked his general election viability to signal this. This is what John Edwards is busy sacrificing to keep himself in the primary race. Edwards is signaling to Democratic voters that he would be a liberal president. However, in so doing, he is making it less likely that general election swing voters will find him appealing. Obama has managed to communicate this to the left without alienating the center.

Nevertheless, if I were a Democrat, I would still be nervous about Obama's prospects in the general election. I argued in January that the premise of Obama's candidacy is that he intends to change the tone of politics in Washington - and that the evidence that he can do this is the force of his personality. I see this as Obama's angle - and his major problem is that it is potentially exploitable.

A presidential election is immediately a choice between two individuals. Of course, it is also a choice between competing ideas, but this choice is mediated by the persons in the race. The words printed on the ballot are proper names - they are not governing proposals. They are "George W. Bush" and "Al Gore," not "tax cut" and "lock box."

Recently, Republicans have been able to make more use of this insight. There have been two instances where, I think, the Republican victory was at least partially predicated upon its portraying its opponent in a negative light. These were 1988 and 2004. In both years, the GOP was able to cast opponents as somehow beneath the office - thus deflecting, at least to a degree, any debate over issues that favor Democrats. If you can convince the public that your opponent will be a bad steward, it does not matter what your opponent promises to do. The public believes that he cannot do what he promises.

I think that, should Obama win the Democratic nomination next year, 2008 could be remembered as the third notch on the GOP's belt. Obama could be cast in a light similar to the light the Republicans cast John Kerry and Michael Dukakis in. There are four reasons I think this.

First, Obama is still new to the national political scene. I am not sure that he fully appreciates that this is an abiding, and occasionally dominating, feature of presidential campaigns. I am guessing that his advisors do - but, explaining this to him might be like explaining baseball to somebody who has never seen the game. He might not be ready for the kind of attacks that he will suffer. And, if the candidate is not ready for them, the campaign is not ready for them.

Second, if the Republicans manage to recast Obama - his candidacy would be severely damaged. The reason is that its entire premise is based upon voters having a certain image of who he is as a person. So far, the Obama campaign has done an excellent job developing and maintaining that image. However, nobody right now is trying to destroy it. If the GOP manages to destroy it - he has no fallback concept to recommend him for the top job. The reason is that he has no record of any relevance. A stint in the Illinois state senate from one of the most liberal neighborhoods in the country, and a half-finished term as a U.S. senator? There is not much there to inspire confidence. The confidence comes from the public's perception of who he is. If the GOP alters that perception, he is left with Hyde Park and three years in the Senate.

Third, Obama's image might be quite susceptible to this kind of destruction. The reason is that it is grounded in very little. Obama literally has no record to run on - and therefore no governmental foundation for the personal profile that he is trying to create. We have the image of him that we do largely because he has suggested that we should. What happens when the GOP suggests an alternative? Remember that Kerry was in the Senate for twenty years prior to his run for the White House - and Bush-Cheney '04 were able to reinvent him for the purpose of the campaign. Kerry's problem was that he was a low-profile senator. This is what enabled the GOP to portray him in the way it did: Kerry hadn't done enough in office to anchor the public image he wanted to create. Obama, literally, has not done anything. He is, in many respects, a blank canvas - which gives the Republicans great leeway in painting a compelling, less-than-flattering portrait of him.

Fourth, Obama's message inherently limits his candidacy. His message is, "I will elevate the tone." The implication here is that he is going to be nice. This will diminish his capacity to recast his Republican opponent. So, it limits his ability to do what successful candidates do. It will continue the streak of Democrats "being unable to play hardball." This is why I took his quick and complete backing down on that mild jab at Hillary - that "D-Punjab" bit - as a bad sign. That was nothing compared to the kind of attacks he'll need to launch against the Republicans.

What is more - "nice" can transform into "whiny." When the other side attempts to recast you, you really need to respond twice as hard. Kerry and Dukakis did not do that. The former, as most of us will recall, simply complained about how mean-spirited the Republicans were, which turned the voters off. Obama seems to me to be warranting through his campaign message that he will not hit back hard. That might leave him sounding whiny, and therefore unsympathetic.

Still, I think Obama has a decent chance to be the 44th President - even though the same problems in lesser quantities thwarted the dreams of other men. After all, he is more charming than Kerry or Dukakis - perhaps he could nullify the GOP's negative characterizations, though I doubt that his charms could nullify well-crafted attacks (especially those that used his charm against him). More important to my mind is that the political environment favors Democrats so much right now that his weaknesses may not even matter. There is a chance - something between 0% and 100% - that the nation will treat the GOP as Pennsylvania treated Rick Santorum last cycle. It did not matter how much money Santorum spent, how clever his ads were, or how incisive his campaign message was; the good people of the Commonwealth had had enough of him, and were ready to accept whatever alternative the Democrats provided. If the public feels similarly about the GOP come next November - it might not matter how excellent the Republican campaign against Obama is.

This is what makes Obama a promising choice. He could be elected next year despite his limitations. And, as I said, I think he would provide Democrats with the liberal kind of administration that Clinton probably will not offer. But there is peril here. Even today's anti-GOP climate might not immunize Obama from "the Republican attack machine." What is more, the climate might change - and I doubt very seriously that a greenhorn like Obama could be elected in the kind of 49/49 environment that characterized 1996-2004.

On the other hand, Clinton is more prepared for the kind of political battle that has characterized recent presidential elections. She is ready for the GOP. But Democrats sense, rightly I think, that Hillary Clinton's administration would be like Bill Clinton's administration - taking issue positions for the purpose of retaining the goodwill of the public. It could quickly shift from center-left to center-right.

Thus, both of the major Democratic candidates are risky choices for Democrats. Clinton could probably weather a full-blown GOP attack, but she might abandon her party when she gets to the White House. Obama will probably not abandon the Democrats after he arrives, but he might not be able to get there.

This is why, if I were betting on who will win the Democratic nomination, I'd spread my money around. I honestly have no idea what the Democrats will do. I don't think they do, either. I certainly don't envy their dilemma. After all, Obama's qualities and Clinton's qualities are not mutually exclusive. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan prove that point. Democrats would be much better off if their hard-nosed candidate was a liberal, and their liberal candidate was hard-nosed.

-Jay Cost