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By Jay Cost

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The Real Barack Obama

When President Obama indicated that he had no problem with secretive House-Senate negotiations on health care - there was outrage from several quarters. Rich Lowry wrote that it's a sign that Obama is "insincere to the point of cynicism." Peter Wehner suggested that this broken pledge "annihilates...the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics." Outrage was not confined to the right. CNN's Jack Cafferty ripped Obama's openness pledge as a "lie," and the whole affair pushed C-SPAN from its usual role as sideline observer to active participant.

Outrage aside, was anybody surprised by this broken pledge? After all, this is the President who promised to find a campaign finance agreement with John McCain, then never tried. This is the President who said that the old ways wouldn't do, then staffed his new administration with Clinton era retreads. This is the President who promised a post-partisan era, but waited less than a week into his new term to initiate a "message war" against his political opponents.

Politicians break their campaign promises all the time. It's part of an age-old electoral strategy: promise everything to the voters during the campaign, and leave the worry about breaking them for the next election.

What's noteworthy about President Obama is that his campaign acknowledged this bad habit, then earnestly pledged that he would be so very different. The sounds and images of his campaign - from the chants of "Yes We Can" to the stage for his convention address to the artwork - suggested that the country was about to elect somebody more special than Rutherford Hayes or Hillary Clinton or Warren Harding or John McCain. Barack Obama wasn't like other politicians. He was superior.

This is what he said when he announced his presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois in February, 2007:

I know there are those who don't believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different...

That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams...This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail.

But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible....

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

The implication of this rhetoric is clear. Most candidates overpromise then underdeliver. That's precisely why we need Barack Obama. He will be the next Abraham Lincoln, an extraordinary leader who will not only bring peace and prosperity, but will restore our sense of common purpose.

Since he burst onto the national scene years ago, people have wondered who is the real Barack Obama? What makes him tick? What's the true story?

The answer should be clear by now: he's just a politician. There's no secret, hidden mystery to the 44th President. He's not a crypto-communist nor is he the next Abraham Lincoln. He's a politician just like any other. He said what he thought he needed to say to get into office, now he's doing what he thinks he needs to be do to stay there. If that creates problems for 2012, he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Hats off to him for a near-flawless execution of an audacious campaign strategy. Since nobody knew anything about him, why not claim the mantle of Lincoln? Nobody could point to a governing record to suggest that he was not in fact a leader for the ages - so why not claim to be? Other pols promise the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky, but Barack Obama would do them one better: he'd promise the eschaton. Not only would an Obama administration grow the economy and end the war, it would reclaim the meaning of citizenship!

This strategy was either cynical or arrogant, depending upon whether the President really thought he could do all these amazing things. Let's hope he didn't. Let's hope he was being cynical, for at least it would suggest the President's sense of himself is not wildly out of proportion to reality.

To function well, this country does not require great leaders who will reclaim the meaning of citizenship, but it has use for good ones who can leave things a little better than when they found them. History has shown that good leaders are often cynical, crafty politicians who are motivated by their own ambitions. Our superior system of government expertly links their private interests to the public good, and thus can bring out the best in them.

But if this President is so vainglorious as to believe his campaign's claims about his greatness, we have reason to worry. With problem piling up on top of problem, the last thing we need is a leader so hopelessly enamored of himself that he actually presumes to be the next Lincoln.

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-Jay Cost