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October 23, 2006

The Barackobubble

I'm happy to see Bob Herbert putting a pin in the burgeoning "Barackobubble." A couple weeks ago, I thought I detected a swell of presidential posturing from the junior senator from Illinois and wrote an LA Times op-ed pointing out that Obama has never been involved in a high profile, competitive campaign, and he's never expended his political capital on a politically controversial or dangerous fight. Given that, there's neither evidence of his ability to withstand Republican attack or his commitment to progressive reform.

The next day, I got a call from one of Obama's press people, who merrily berated me for misreading his boss's Iowa visits and national hires as evidence of interest in a national campaign. A few days later, Obama made the interest public and explicit in Joe Klein's cover profile of Time. Bad press management strategy, that.

There's a real danger here for the left who, so long out of power, are ready to jump on whichever train looks likeliest to pull into the White House on time. That may (or may not) be a good strategy for returning to power. But throwing your lot in with the smoothest talker and hoping for the best once he achieves power is a terrible method for building a movement, or popularizing ideas. The left needs to set up incentives so presidential contenders to pledge fealty to their priorities -- their support should be contingent on ideological agreement, and should never precede it. As other have remarked, when David Brooks and Joe Klein both throw their weight behind a putatively "liberal' cause or candidate, smart leftists will look for the catch.

None of this is to deny the possibility that Obama is, in fact, the best or most progressive candidate. I've read a bit of his new book and, thus far, been reassured. It's just to note that no one really knows, and very few seem interested in finding out. I'm profoundly skeptical that the current, constant hagiographies of the senator will last long into a presidential campaign, and there's no history to suggest whether Obama can withstand and respond to the negative barrages the Republican smear machine is capable of unleashing.

And nor is it a sure thing that he will be the progressive movement's Ronald Reagan: He has not resuscitated Labor or poverty as causes, like John Edwards has, or made his opposition to the Iraq War a definitional crusade, a la Russ Feingold, or grown obsessed with climate change, like Al Gore. It's not clear what really animates the guy, save for the pursuit of unity and conciliation (two ideals that don't often make for fantastic legislative agendas). In other words, he remains, for now, a man, not a movement. And this country needs, and the left needs the confidence to work for, a movement.

Crossed to Tapped

October 23, 2006 | Permalink


Given the difficulties in reaching the presidency from the Senate, I wonder if he's interested in taking the vice-presidential spot instead of waiting eight more years in the Senate. Running for president is a typical way to aim for the number two spot. He would overshadow most running mates, which might be a problem getting the offer.

I do worry about his lack of experience. He couldn't help but be better than someone like Bush, of course, who was terribly ignorant, but he'd have to be very good to be better than the rest of a field of far more experienced options.

Have Brooks and Klein endorsed him or just pointed out that he has some outstanding qualities that would make him a formidable candidate? I don't see any reason liberals should be bothered by the latter.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 23, 2006 11:52:05 AM

Actually, given the examples you cite, I'd prefer a man to a movement. I think there's a real danger in the opposite of what you suggest - insisting that there's some over-arching (and probably rather dramatic) movement that will get us a majority in both houses of congress and the Presidency. I'm skeptical that we can find the things that will get everyone to agree (if they exist, which I doubt), and in our zeal to get there, I think we throw a lot of good people overboard. Remember, getting past the natural 45-49% of people who are on board as Democrats means attracting people who don't like to have to sign on to grand liberal schemes or highly progressive movements. Often they're just "not the other guy" types. We need to leave room for them, too.

(I'm just asking, and I probably should blog on it myself - but do we really think Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton were elected as movements or men? My thinking is "a little of both" but our Presidential voting is often driven by personal charisma, and we shouldn't forget that.)

I think Obama still comes off as too young, untested and nervous to be ready for the biggest big time. He was okay on MTP, but I think those who still float him after that are being overly generous. It's not just that he lacks a "signature issue" - he's also just not seasoned enough. That takes time. Will the next two years be enough? Maybe; some people are kind of born to this stuff. But I think when we get to lat next year and some hard choices have to be made, Obama will be a tantalizing, but not quite ready distratcion. Kind of like what he is now. And it is interesting to wonder how we will deal with that.

(PS "Crossposted at Tapped" and "Crossed to Tapped" do not mean the same thing.)

Posted by: weboy | Oct 23, 2006 11:53:53 AM

I agree with everything Ezra writes. But I would add that I can certainly identify a leader when one drifts in front of me, and I believe Obama has all the qualities--tangible, ineffable, and otherwise--of a real, honest-to-goodness leader. This impression undoubtedly comes across as pure touchy-feely stuff, but the ancient Greeks used it too: certain humans just have that X-factor, and when they identified it in children, the process of grooming and educating future leaders began then and there.

I view leadership as a quality that has nothing to do with who can schmooze the most wealthy donors, who can invoke the name of a Christian deity most frequently, or who can spew out a few talking points and tell people what they want to hear.

Finally, while time to mature and build a resume may be necessary in Obama's case, is having a long and storied history in Congress necessarily a good thing? To my mind, it means that much more time in which to rack up a voting record that opponents can easily pick apart and attack you with, however unfairly; more time to become part of the problem; more time to abandon idealism and innovation in favor of the two "quos": status and quid pro.

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 23, 2006 12:01:51 PM

Weboy: do we really think Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton were elected as movements or men?

"Search all the parks in all your cities; you'll find no statues of committees."
-- David Ogilvy

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 23, 2006 12:06:11 PM

Obviously you elect men (or, hopefully, women), but you demand they're about something more lasting than themselves. Roosevelt was elected as man, but proved himself committed to a movement. Clinton and Carter didn't, and I'd argue they both harmed progressivism. Johnson was certainly committed to liberal ideals, as was Kennedy. But I'd suggest that the last thirty or forty years haven't proved a particularly successful period for progressivism, and so following that template may not be a good idea.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 23, 2006 12:26:32 PM

I have to say that I am glad you, among others like Digby, are skeptical of a Obama run, at this point in time. I lived in southern Illinois for the better part of 22 years, and voted for him in 2004. And would vote for him again at the Senate or Gubernatorial level, if I still lived there. But at the national level You are right on, but i would offer 3.5 expansions/theories/nitpicky points.

1: I think you did not emphasize just how unprepared he is for the savagery of partisan warfare at the national level. The attacks will be disgusting. He's not a real African American, his mother is white, his father was from Kenya. He's not a real American, he's lived abroad for too long. Obama sounds distinctly unAmerican.

While the DC crowd, celebs, pundits, and people of Illinois love him, he's still relatively unknown for the vast majority of the electorate (to be fair so is almost everyone else). The will seek to define him early and unlike people like even Bayh, his record will be so slim that it will be hard to fight back. He needs to prove some he can take it, and throw it back. The Illinois GOP went totally ChiCubs in 2004. Jack Ryan went from being a serious candidate to a punchline in a night (when is it not good to release damaging info on a Friday? when its about kinky sex. Everyone calls their buddies to tell them about it while the newscycle does nothing to stop the gossip). And Keyes was a joke and everyone knew it.

2: Senators don't become President, the become has beens and Vice Presidents (JFK was the sole Senator to win the White House in the 20th century). If I were Obama, I would take some issue in the Senate, champion it, wait until 2010 when the term expires and Mr Corrupto has to retire as Ill Gov, and run for Gov and then apply that idea to Ill. The Ill Dem party could use a good ironwool scrubbing regardless. He'd win it garuanteed, the Ill GOP might be reconstructed enough to actually mount some opposition. That would remove him from the DC spotlight with his goldenboy image intact, and ready to reappear in 2016 or 2020.

2.5: I think W illustrates that experience and competance are things we should require of our candidates and i just dont see 4 years in the Senate as enough experience, 6 years senate, 6 years gov? different story.

3: The reason everyone loves him now is exactly because he has not taken controversial stands. They see him, and project what they want in a politician onto him. No matter what happens this will fade with experience, but running as the nominee and having to define where he stands on a number of issues to the electorate on the fly is bound to be messy, and slowly people will realize that he is not a fantasy come true, but a flawed human like any other politician. He can counter the projection-benefit-thing by proving himelf as governor.

But to tell the whole truth, when i get cynical and depressed about politics, i go online and watch his convention speech. Its like prayer.

All said I think (hope- see the projection thing) he's running for VP, or as practice and isn't actually too serious about this. Would love to see Gore/Obama though.

Posted by: gsam | Oct 23, 2006 1:41:29 PM

A lot of people now are making Ezra's points about Obama...I'm not saying this is what this blog is doing, but it does seem like a lot of the political establishment and/or blogging community is now trying to throw cold water on the excitement around this guy. Show me another leader in our party who has that "x factor," another person with his fundraising capacity, another person that increases attendance at Constituent Coffee breakfasts and forces them into rooms that can accomodate over 100 people, and I'll willingly jump into the "well, whatever" comments circulating around Obama.

He's not experienced enough. He's too green. He's never really been challenged. His name sounds like Osama. He's black (?). Republicans will attack him (like this has ever been a good reason not to get in the game?). We need a movement, not a man (Gandhi, MLK...movements, men?).

Two things: 1) The Republicans at my grandmother's birthday party this weekend said of Obama---when someone else in the room brought him up---, "I'd vote for him" or "I wish I could get a chance to hear him speak in public." 2) "But to tell the whole truth, when i get cynical and depressed about politics, i go online and watch his convention speech. Its like prayer."

What do we have to lose, seriously speaking, in actually putting up a candidate, even if just in the primaries, that makes people speak with hope again? Even if he doesn't win, he'll represent the best in us and speak with the genuine intelligence we've been missing, at least long enough to make the other candidates do the same. Even he gets taken down, we'll have more clips of speeches that make you feel the way you did when you first really realized the brilliance of the country. That isn't nothing; that's everything.

The Christian evangelists who go out and stomp for Bush because they believe--we can quibble about what it is they believe and the intermingling of politics and faith until the cows come home, but the point is: We progressives love to try to make politics rational. And policymaking should be as rational as possible but all you have to do is look at who's in charge and you'll realize elections are just not about breaking out resumes and figuring out who's done what and for how long. They're about personas, to a great extent. And anyone who's read his books, heard his speeches---you know Obama has this capacity, to just shine a light. And people get out of their house and vote for light, whether we want to admit that's how it happens or not, whether that light is coming from the right or the left or as a lot of the populace believes, Jesus.

...I look at Obama the same way I look at the DNC's 50-state-strategy: it sure as hell is worth a shot.

Posted by: jaimeita | Oct 23, 2006 3:14:37 PM

The Christian evangelists who go out and stomp for Bush because they believe--we can quibble about what it is they believe and the intermingling of politics and faith until the cows come home, but the point is: We progressives love to try to make politics rational.

No one seemed to care when Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Andrew Young and others, all ministers, used their position and even their churches to change politics.

Nope, you were silent on this issue then. OK for them, I guess.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 23, 2006 4:35:51 PM

Fred, you're correct. There are many people, progressive and otherwise, who use their positions and churches to change politics. And for the record, I don't think it's wrong to utilize those things as impetus and potential organizing grounds for one's political beliefs.

However, the point I was making in this comment is that people often vote with their heart (which can correspond to their religious affiliations, which is why I used the evangelical movement as an example), and in my opinion, many people in today's progressive movement tend not to acknowledge this motivator as much as they should, and it's part of the reason why Barack Obama, despite any strikes against him, is a strong contender.

Posted by: jaimeita | Oct 23, 2006 5:31:43 PM

So why the hell is there all this media attention to possible 2008 Democratic presidential candidates during these weeks immediately before the 2006 election?

The Atlantic runs an article about Hillary this month. Why now?
She's not even in a competitive Senate race in 2006.

Obama comes out with a book now, and the spin is all about his presidential prospects. Why now? He's not even up for election to anything in 2006.

All this presidential speculation is eating up bandwidth at a time there's a lot of more immediate consequence. Whose idea was that?

Posted by: Jacel | Oct 23, 2006 8:29:02 PM

Let's cut to the chase and understand that Mr. Obama is exciting to the liberals beacuse he is black.
It certainly isn't because of his experience.

That being said, the first Black or female president will be elected because of their qualities and not for their PC appeal.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 11:11:34 AM

Let's cut to the chase and understand that Mr. Obama is exciting to the liberals beacuse he is black.

Actually, he's exciting to me because he's intelligent. It's rather refreshing.

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 24, 2006 12:44:37 PM

Actually, he's exciting to me because he's intelligent.

Shorter litbrit: He says he will vote the way I would like him to vote.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 5:34:52 PM

Fred, there are many liberal black politicians. None excites liberals the way Obama does. That suggests something other than your theory is involved.

Your shorter litbrit is actually longer, by the way.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 24, 2006 8:30:35 PM

We can nominate Obama if we want, but we'd better be prepared to find 270 electoral votes w/o getting a single Southern state, because if you think a black man stands a snowball's chance in hell of winning down there, you're insane.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 24, 2006 9:08:52 PM

I'm insane.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 24, 2006 9:54:36 PM

Jason would be surprised if he really knew the South. In his small stereotypical world, all the South cares about is race. Not true.

Offer up a conservative Black man (or woman) and the South will carry them to victory.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 9:59:28 PM

I might add that Obama is not that conservative Blackby any stretch of the imagination. He is very, VERY liberal.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Oct 24, 2006 10:00:36 PM

Senators don't become President, the become has beens and Vice Presidents (JFK was the sole Senator to win the White House in the 20th century).

Warren G. Harding was also elected President while a sitting senator. In addition, it's worth noting that Senators Truman, Johnson, and Nixon also would become president, although their victories came while they were sitting presidents (in the first two cases), or former vice presidents (in the last). Beyond that, it seems hard to argue that Senators Kerry, McGovern, and Goldwater lost because they were senators, any more than Governor Dukakis lost because he was a Governor. George H. W. Bush was the first sitting Veep to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Presidential elections are so infrequent that it's just absurd to draw serious conclusions like this from them.

In elections in the 20th century, we see

1) a sitting president beating a former congressman (and presidential nominee)
2) a sitting president beating a judge
3) a secretary of war beating a former congressman (and presidential nominee)
4) a governor beating a sitting president and a former president
5) a sitting president beating a supreme court justice
6) a senator beating a governor
7) a sitting president beating a former diplomat and wall street lawyer
8) a secretary of commerce beating a governor
9) a governor beating a sitting president
10) a sitting president beating a governor
11) a sitting president beating a businessman
12) a sitting president beating a governor
13) a sitting president beating a governor
14) a general beating a governor
15) a sitting president beating a former governor
16) a senator beating the sitting vice president
17) a sitting president beating a senator
18) a former vice president beating the sitting vice president
19) a sitting president beating a senator
20) a former governor beating a sitting president
21) a former governor beating a sitting president
22) a sitting president beating a former vice president
23) a sitting vice president beating a governor
24) a governor beating the sitting president
25) the sitting president beating a senator
26) a governor beating a sitting vice president
27) the sitting president beating a senator

14 sitting presidents
6 governors
2 senators
2 cabinet members
2 vice presidents
1 general with no elected experience

Not a very clear pattern at all.

Posted by: John | Oct 24, 2006 11:49:58 PM

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