The Obama fac­tor

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Don­ald Lam­bro

Barack Obama’s me­te­oric leap into con­tention for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion rep­re­sents the first ma­jor ob­sta­cle to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s ex­pected bid for her party’s nom­i­na­tion in 2008.

A mere 13 months be­fore the first nom­i­nat­ing con­tests are to be held in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, the skinny Illi­nois sen­a­tor with the funny name has emerged as the Democrats’ best or­a­tor, with an op­ti­mistic and hope­ful mes­sage that has be­gun gal­va­niz­ing large seg­ments of the party’s rank and file be­hind his once-im­prob­a­ble White House am­bi­tions.

His re­cent trips to Iowa (where he was “greeted like a rock star,” a state of­fi­cial said) and more re­cently in New Hamp­shire, where he sold out a $25 per per­son fundrais­ing vic­tory rally in a mat­ter of hours, have sparked a wave of ex­cite­ment over him at the party’s grass roots. “I think it’s a strong like­li­hood that Obama could be­come a front-run­ner,” en­thused Sandy Op­stvedt of Story City, Iowa, a Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee mem­ber and vet­eran party oper­a­tive.

“He has the abil­ity to in­spire au­di­ences. Vot­ers are look­ing for some­one who can ex­press that en­thu­si­asm and achieve changes. A lot of peo­ple are frus­trated by the lack of abil­ity to get things done and are look­ing for a can­di­date who can do that,” she told me.

While Mrs. Clin­ton still beats all com­ers in the na­tional polls, they are not nec­es­sar­ily the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in the gru­el­ing state-bystate marathon of cau­cuses and pri­maries. In­deed, Demo­cratic strate­gists now say Mr. Obama is seen as a threat to Hil­lary in early con­tests. Among her weak­nesses: early sup­port for the Iraq war, op­po­si­tion to a speedy pull­out and sup­port for free trade pacts that are poi­son in the party’s work­ing-class base.

“Barack Obama is a threat to Hil­lary, but only if he makes a con­trast­ing case against her,” said Demo­cratic cam­paign ad­viser David Sirota, a top strate­gist in an­ti­war chal­lenger Ned La­mont’s Demo­cratic pri­mary up­set over Con­necti­cut Sen. Joe Lieber­man (who went on to win the gen­eral elec­tion as an in­de­pen­dent).

“If it’s a pop­u­lar­ity con­test be­tween two well-known Demo­cratic politi­cians, then he isn’t much of a threat. But if he starts cam­paign­ing on the is­sues of the Iraq war and on eco­nomic is­sues in con­trast to Hil­lary, who voted for the war res­o­lu­tion, op­posed early troop with­drawals and sup­ports free­trade is­sues that have de­stroyed jobs here, then he’s a real, ma­jor threat,” Mr. Sirota told me.

In heav­ily union­ized Iowa, for ex­am­ple, trade is­sues are piv­otal, as is the war which “will most likely cause her prob­lems” with the party’s base, Mrs. Op­stvedt said.

But in what came close to an early en­dorse­ment, Demo­cratic strate­gist Donna Brazile, who man­aged Al Gore’s 2000 cam­paign, said that “if Barack runs, he should run to win the pres­i­dency and not run to de­feat Hil­lary Clin­ton.”

“Barack has some­thing that is aw­fully miss­ing to­day in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: the gift of charisma. Most peo­ple find him not just at­trac­tive, but po­lit­i­cally vi­able. He has cross- over ap­peal and the abil­ity to at­tract moder­ates and in­de­pen­dents,” she told me.

But the Har­vard-ed­u­cated Obama has prob­lems, too, specif­i­cally his tis­sue-pa­per-thin ex­pe­ri­ence and a record of vir­tu­ally no ac­com­plish­ment. He has led no causes, fought no ma­jor leg­isla­tive bat­tles in the past two years he has been in the Se­nate, and seems to be deeply risk-ad­verse to get­ting into a prin­ci­pled fight about any­thing larger than him­self.

“In­deed, Obama is that odd­est of all crea­tures: a leader who’s never led,” writes lib­eral Demo­cratic an­a­lyst Ezra Klein in the Los An­ge­les Times. “There are no coura­geous, lonely cru­sades to his name, or supremely un­likely elec­toral bat­tles be­neath his belt. He won elec­tion run­ning ba­si­cally un­op­posed, and then re­fused to open him­self to at­tack by mak­ing a con­tro­ver­sial but cor­rect is­sue his own,” Mr. Klein said.

But in the present po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, with Hil­lary Clin­ton bat­tling to over­come her own im­age prob­lems as a deeply po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, Mr. Obama could be of­fer­ing his party ex­actly what they want right now: an elo­quent, ec­u­meni­cal, youth­ful po­lit­i­cal star who ex­cites the party’s base and has the abil­ity to reach out to cross-over con­stituen­cies.

He has said he is se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing his can­di­dacy and will make his de­ci­sion some­time next month and in­sid­ers now be­lieve he will throw his hat in the ring.

His ad­vis­ers think that no one has a lock on the nom­i­na­tion, not even Hil­lary who has yet to prove her­self in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, and no one comes close to his or­a­tor­i­cal pow­ers to con­nect with au­di­ences wher­ever he goes.

“The race is wide open here,” New Hamp­shire Demo­cratic Vice Chair­man Ray Buck­ley told me. “No­body has 30 per­cent and it can be any­body’s vic­tory.”

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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