By Jonathan Alter
Updated: 4:52 p.m. CT Oct 4, 2006
Oct. 4, 2006 - Ask Washington insiders about Sen. Barack Obama's presidential hopes, and you'll get a pat response: great idea, a cycle or three from now--or maybe this time as veep. But they need to get out more. I’ve talked to Democrats in 10 cities in the last four months and found Obama fever throughout the Democratic Party. Besides an online Al Gore boomlet, no one else raises a reaction anything like it. More impressively, there's now a distinct possibility that Obama may seize the moment and run in '08. A close associate introduces a note of caution: “I’d put the chances right now at no better than 50 percent,” he told me Tuesday, as Obama taped Oprah’s show in Chicago. Fifty percent? For Obama-hungry Democrats, those are much better odds than they’ve assumed. Whatever happens in the midterms, ’08 could get very exciting, very fast.
[...] Obama's aides see no political reasons not to make the race. His advisers believe his mere four years in the Senate will not be a liability (Abraham Lincoln ran after two years in the House, Woodrow Wilson after two years as governor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and now Mitt Romney after four years as governor.) “The Senate is a political tomb,” says one. The longer one stays, the more controversial votes one casts. Gravitas and knowledge about the issues are not problems for Obama, who is plenty fluent on the issues, even if he hasn't established much of a record yet. He has emerged as an unlikely friend and ally of GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, who will acknowledge Obama’s depth on foreign policy....
Well ... this could be an interesting idea. Frankly, I think an interestingly bad idea, but an interesting one.
One aspect of this that may not come into play in the usual way: there appear to be no strong candidates of either party with executive office experience -- mayorships or governorships or the like. This country is notoriously resistant to electing chief executives without executive experience in public office at some level.
He can, and has, also spoken to religious issues in a way that works for people of faith who are not as extreme in their beliefs. He can give them some assurance that, although he may not always vote for their causes, he can hear and understand their concerns.
For those members of both parties for whom race is not an issue, he gives the moderates somewhere to go. Moderates of both parties have, of late, been forced to either hold their nose and vote for candidates they truly dislike, or simply not vote. Obama is moderate enough on most issues that even moderate Republicans might be convinced to give him a chance against the sort of extreme right-wing person that tends to survive the Republican primaries these days.
And yet ... and yet. There is, of course, the elephant in the room. This country is also notoriously resistant to electing people of color to statewide office. It might be that you could use Obama for President to produce a surge of minority voter registration in the south and elsewhere. It's also true that it would drive a lot of voter registration for Republicans; the extreme right would be willing to vote for just about any white person to keep a black one out of office. (See: Pat Buchanan and his "breed, white people, breed!" publications.) It's also true that in recent years, laws have been enacted, aimed primarily at low-income, rural and minority people, to restrict their ability to register and their right to vote. Most of those laws are still intact; we don't know if they'll all be struck down in time for the next election, or if they'll be struck down at all. It can also be assumed that Diebold and other voting machine manufacturers will be doing their level best to get the Republicans to hold the presidency.
And, at the most basic level: we don't know how Obama would have performed in a competitive race. The plain fact is, he got lucky when Jack Ryan self-destructed, and the Illinois GOP lost its mind and selected Alan Keyes as his replacement. He won in what was basically a walkover.
It may be true that the Senate is a tomb of political ambition -- certainly it's true that nobody has been elected president from that body in many years. It may also be true that what would be best for Obama and his chances is to run for governor of Illinois in 2010 -- after, one assumes, he's been re-elected to the Senate in 2008 -- and then for president in 2014. Although that is a very long time for any person with ambition to wait.
On the other hand: if he does run, the worst thing he'll do is lose. And he may be able to refocus the election onto issues that actually matter to people, and that would be no bad thing, all on its own.Posted by iain at October 06, 2006 04:34 PM