Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Barack the House

Another entry in my presidential contenders series.

In 2004, when he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, then Illinois House member Barack Obama gave an address to the Democratic National Convention. It was an impressive speech. I downloaded it on to my iTunes play list and I began to share it with my American Government students as an example of good political rhetoric. That fall Obama went on to win his Illinois Senate seat. And from the moment he hit the U.S. Senate, Obama's name has been on everyone's list of potential presidential contenders. So it's no surprise that 2007 finds Obama ranked among the first-tier candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Why all the fuss?

For starters, there are his impressive credentials: he earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University before he moved on to graduate from Harvard Law School. From there Obama went to Chicago where he met his wife and went to work as a community activist. Obama was elected to the Illinois state house at the age of 35 and since 2005 he's been in the U.S. Senate. He's African-American, with an immigrant father and a white mother. He represents an interesting and distinctly American life experience.

His views are generally mainstream, with a populist can-do rhetoric that evinces faith in the American promise. He's an articulate and impressive guy. But does he have what it takes to win the Democratic nomination?

Though he has sat for election on several occasions, the presidential nomination is actually the first competitive election Obama has faced. His earlier elections were unusual in that competition was virtually non-existent. In his 2004 Senate race, Obama's first opponent, Jack Ryan, self-destructed on his very own and was replaced by political lightening rod Alan Keyes. Obama reaped the reward of the GOP meltdown. This is important to understand because it enabled Obama to move himself toward the center and appeal to a diversity of Illinois interests. He can't do that in the 2008 race, which finds him needing to persuade first Democratic voters and then the national electorate. It's a different task and one Obama has never before faced.

In terms of policy positions, he isn't that distinct from Hilary Clinton or John Edwards, his fellow front-runners. The recent foreign policy snafu with Hilary was really a whole lot of smoke and mirrors emphasized by conventional media outlets that have grown tired of the endless debates about the same old things. Obama talks about needing better healthcare and education but he hasn't forwarded an actual plan. In a recent Iowa appearance, he commiserated with Iowans about the price of arugula at Whole Foods market, a mis-step that reveals him as something a little more elite than he likes to claim.

In the end, I think that Obama's task is harder than Clinton's or Edwards' because he is inexperienced, learning the ropes of a national campaign in some very bright lights. That inexperience is alluring to voters now, early on in an election featuring some very important issues of long-term importance in the United States. In 2008, we should be discussing some big questions: What are the long-term goals of American foreign policy? What should we do about the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance? Is No Child Left Behind working or does public education need more radical reform? Is Social Security secure enough to manage the retirement of baby boomers and beyond? Do we need immigration reform? This list is already long and it's hardly exhaustive.

We can use some new faces and new ideas as we face these issues. And for this reason I think that Obama's candidacy is important. But in the end his inexperience will show. And as alluring as his new face is, voters in 2008 will look for familiar and experienced leaders. And Barack Obama doesn't make that cut.

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