Oba­ma­ma­nia and the ex­pe­ri­ence fac­tor

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - MICHAEL BARONE

Oba­ma­ma­nia seems to be the po­lit­i­cal fla­vor of the month. Illi­nois fresh­man Sen. Barack Obama drew crowds of 3,000 in New Hamp­shire — more than can­di­dates usu­ally pull in the last week­end be­fore the pri­mary. He has ap­peared not only on “Meet the Press” but also on “Mon­day Night Foot­ball.” His an­nounce­ment he was think­ing about run­ning for pres­i­dent seems to have prompted New York Sen Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s moves to kick her can­di­dacy into gear.

Poll­ster Scott Ras­mussen shows him get­ting 17 per­cent of the pri­mary vote to Mrs. Clin­ton’s 34 per­cent, with no other can­di­date in dou­ble dig­its. Ras­mussen has Mr. Obama get­ting fa­vor­able rat­ings from 52 per­cent of all vot­ers, 2 per­cent more than Mrs. Clin­ton, and un­fa­vor­able rat­ings from 33 per­cent, 15 per­cent less. All this for a man who was al­most to­tally un­known to vot­ers when he stood up in July 2004 to de­liver the key­note at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. You only have to watch the video of that speech again to re­al­ize why Mr. Obama has im­pressed so many Amer­i­cans.

There is clearly a de­mand in the po­lit­i­cal mar­ket­place for can­di­dates who can rise above the bit­ter par­ti­san­ship that has domi- nated our pol­i­tics since Bill Clin­ton took of­fice in 1993. That par­ti­san­ship has been bit­ter in part be­cause Mr. Clin­ton and Ge­orge W. Bush — both born in the lead-off Baby Boom year of 1946 — hap­pen to have per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics that Amer­i­cans on op­po­site sides of the cul­tural di­vide ab­so­lutely loathe. And it has been bit­ter be­cause the de­mo­graphic fac­tor most highly cor­re­lated with vot­ing be­hav­ior is re­li­gion and de­gree of re­li­gious de­vo­tion — which is to say, peo­ple with deeply held moral views. Too many peo­ple have come to re­gard the views of the other side as not only wrong, but evil.

Mr. Obama, by em­pha­siz­ing what Amer­i­cans of dif­fer­ing views have in com­mon, in­vites us to an era of less bit­ter par­ti­san­ship. His own back­ground — mother from Kansas, fa­ther from Kenya, child­hood in Hawaii and In­done­sia, ed­u­ca­tion at Columbia and Har­vard Law — seems to span the breadth of Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. He is clearly smart and car­ries him­self with an at­trac­tive grace. But does all that re­ally qual­ify him to be pres­i­dent?

It is a ques­tion Mr. Obama seems to be grap­pling with him­self. If the com­plaint about Pres­i­dent Bush is that he hasn’t worked ag­gres­sively and shrewdly enough to get the de­sired re­sults on the ground in Iraq (and New Or­leans), vot­ers will be look­ing for a can­di­date who seems able to do so. Sev­eral can­di­dates of both par­ties can claim they are.

For­mer Mayor Ru­dolph Gi­u­liani cut crime and wel­fare de­pen­dency more than 50 per­cent in New York City, and then per­formed as­ton­ish­ingly well on Septem­ber 11, 2001, in the af­ter­math of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the World Trade Cen­ter. Ari­zona Sen. John McCain has taken the lead­er­ship role on all man­ner of is­sues in the Se­nate and has got­ten re­sults. Gov. Mitt Rom­ney made mil­lions as an in­vestor, res­cued the Utah Olympics and pushed a uni­ver­sal health-care pro­gram through in Mas­sachusetts.

Mrs. Clin­ton has ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing and achiev­ing re­sults in the White House. Al Gore made se­ri­ous con­tri­bu­tions to gov­er­nance in Congress and in the White House. Mr. Obama’s re- sume in­cludes one ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tion: He di­rected Illi­nois Project Vote in 1992. Two, if you count his pres­i­dency of the Har­vard Law Re­view. He’s been a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Chicago since 1993 and served in the Illi­nois Se­nate from 1996 to 2004, when he was elected to the U.S. Se­nate.

Imag­ine a race be­tween Rudy Gi­u­liani and Barack Obama. Mr. Gi­u­liani has cen­trist po­si­tions on some is­sues, while Mr. Obama has a vot­ing record well on the left in the Se­nate. Mr. Gi­u­liani has some in­ter­est­ing and novel things to say about is­sues; Mr. Obama can surely make good ar­gu­ments for his stands, but they don’t seem likely to be very in­ter­est­ing — cer­tainly not as in­ter­est­ing as, say, Bill Clin­ton’s dis­cus­sion of is­sues in 1992. And Mr. Gi­u­liani can ar­gue he knows how to han­dle crises and how to get re­sults from mas­sive bu­reau­cra­cies and uni­formed forces.

Mr. Obama can say he has that abil­ity, too, and per­haps he does. But we have no way of know­ing for sure. Mr. Obama has the abil­ity to be a strong can­di­date. But it’s not clear, per­haps not even to him­self, whether he can be a strong and ef­fec­tive pres­i­dent.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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