The buzz surrounding Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois reminds many seasoned Beltway observers of Pres. John F. Kennedy at a similar point in his political career. Sen. Obama gained national prominence at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Though he has not announced that he is a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, such an announcement seems, at this point, to be a fait accompli.
Despite his current q-ratings, it will be very difficult for Sen. Obama to secure his party’s nomination, much less the White House itself. Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that his candidacy will represent a watershed moment in American politics. It is likely to provide concrete evidence of our society’s true attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and even religious tolerance. It will hopefully force us to examine the often-hypocritical stance we take towards information about politicians’ past behavior, particularly when it comes to recreational drug use. We have a history of being quick to condemn behavior that, in ourselves, we are just as quick to label “youthful indiscretions”.
Sen. Obama is young, articulate, and photogenic. He presents himself with a directness and candor that stands in stark contrast to those politicians who often seem incapable of providing straightforward answers to even the most unambiguous questions.
He is inarguably intelligent. Obama is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, who served as President of the Law Review. He taught at the University of Chicago while working for a firm specializing in civil rights law.
Sen. Obama also seems to know, whether by instinct or observation, how to market himself. He recognized at the very start of his political career that some skeletons should be exhumed and displayed as early as possible. Sen. Obama revealed his teenaged drug use in an autobiography published before his first political campaign. When asked by Jay Leno whether he inhaled, he simply replied “That was the point.” This answer showed a politician capable of thinking on his feet. It also showed a man with the ability and willingness to admit to his mistakes without coming across as either “preachy” or hypocritical. To many, that statement turned a potential land mine into a minor issue.
Barack Obama was not a member of the United States Senate when many of his potential opponents were faced with the decision whether or not to authorize the President to invade Iraq. As such, he does not have to contend with charges that he rubber-stamped what is now seen by many as a fundamentally flawed policy. Nor does he have to contend with charges that he flip-flopped on the issue, supporting the Bush agenda when it enjoyed immense popular support only to withdraw that support when that popularity began to wane.
Sen. Obama’s opponents are certain to highlight his lack of experience, particularly with respect to national politics and international issues. Expect them to bring this up early and often. Unfortunately for Obama, Pres. Bush’s current approval ratings mean that he cannot even defend himself by asserting that his level of experience is at least on par with that of George W. Bush when he took office in January 2001.
He also faces the same Catch-22 facing any Democrat seeking to gain the White House in 2008. It will be impossible for him to win the general election without securing his party’s nomination. Yet the stance on issues that he might have to take to secure that nomination might make him unpalatable to voters in the general election.
If history is any guide, the idea that “every boy can be President” is a myth with no basis in reality. No non-white male and only one non-Protestant has ever been elected President of the United States. If, 46 years ago, many voters wondered whether or not a son of Joseph P. Kennedy would take direct orders from the Vatican while seated in the Oval Office, what sort of concerns might the voting public have about a multiracial candidate with the middle name of "Hussein", who was educated, however briefly, at what one magazine report described as a madrassa (Islamic religious school) in Indonesia? From the fifth grade on, Sen. Obama attended and eventually graduated from a preparatory school in Honolulu, Hawaii. Still, the issue of his alleged “Muslim education” (a thinly veiled accusation of Muslim indoctrination) has already been raised.
The flip side to the fact that Obama does not carry any baggage with respect to Iraq, is that he will now have to choose his stance on the war very, very carefully. Voters have had a comparatively long time to process and evaluate the stances on the war taken by his opponents, however conflicting and contradictory they may be. If Sen. Obama makes a statement or casts a vote that proves unpopular, he will not have very long to recover before the primary season rolls around.
Ultimately though, the largest obstacle Sen. Obama faces is that he is in danger of “peaking” too soon. A great deal of his appeal lies in the fact that he’s a fresh face, a possible alternative to the seemingly preordained nomination of Sen. Hilary Clinton. As much as Americans love underdogs, we have a similar distaste for overwhelming favorites. Even if we know the little guy’s not going to win, we cheer for him loudly all the same. But it’s only January 2007. How can a fresh face remain fresh between now and the start of primary season in 2008? Only time will tell.
On Monday, January 22, CNN filed a story from Indonesia regarding the early education of Barack Obama. According to CNN, Sen. Obama attended the Basuki school in Jakarta, Indonesia, for two years, before transferring to a Catholic school. CNN interviewed one of Sen. Obama's classmates, as well as the Basuki school's deputy headmaster. Both men stated that the school was not and never had been an Islamic school.