When it comes to self-reflection, Barack Obama is an overachiever. At age 46, he has already written two memoirs when most people in public life -- sometime at the end of their career -- will be lucky to write one.
So far, what Obama seems set to get out of his presidential campaign is yet another memoir -- this one an agonized, deeply personal account of how his campaign went nowhere despite all the media hoopla, crowds and fundraising. It turns out that voters aren't as interested in Barack Obama as Barack Obama is.
Like Jacob grappling with the archangel Gabriel, Obama has been wrestling with his own conscience the entire campaign and has come up lame. He has engaged in a running commentary on whether the tactics of his own campaign -- down to specific press releases -- live up to his standard of audacious hopefulness. Left unclear is why anyone else besides Barack Obama should care.
The insular, self-obsessed campaign of her chief rival is one of the reasons Hillary Clinton has had as good a 90-day run as anyone in presidential politics in recent memory. She still has a race on her hands in Iowa, but she leads there after trailing most of the year, and more than doubles Obama's support in national polls, where he has slipped as low as 17 percent.
All year, Obama has offered voters airy cliches about hope, change and bipartisanship, and assurances that he personally embodies all of the above. He ended a typically precious ad in Iowa: "I approved this message to ask you to believe, not just in my ability to bring real change in Washington. I'm asking you to believe in yours." OK, but what sort of change exactly?
The Obama campaign finally has realized that campaigns here in the real world are won on what consultants call "contrasts." So it trotted out Obama to tell New York Times reporters that he will soon begin attacking Clinton, the same assurance he gave to The Washington Post two months ago. The Times interview featured Obama discoursing on his favorite campaign topic: the ethics and processes of his own campaign.
Obama has indeed been on the attack lately, only maladroitly. He is hitting Clinton for having the same position as he does on Iran. He favors designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and placing more sanctions on Iran, as does Clinton. The difference is that Clinton voted for a sense of the Senate resolution endorsing those measures, a resolution Obama has condemned as "dangerous." While Clinton was in the Senate negotiating out of the resolution language Democrats thought went too far, Obama was someplace else, too busy spreading hope even to vote on a measure he says might drag us to war with Iran.
Obama particularly objects to language in the resolution saying that it's a "critical national interest of the United States" to keep Iran from creating a Hezbollah-like force in Iraq. Obama himself has said that it "is in our national interest to prevent" Iran from doing that. At bottom, Obama seems to believe that Congress shouldn't say things that he thinks are true, lest the Bush administration take comfort in it. How divisive, not to mention schizophrenic.
His other avenue of attack on Clinton is that she's vague about her plans to keep Social Security solvent. She supports a favorite Washington placeholder, a bipartisan commission. He's upfront about his support of increased payroll taxes. Hillary is dodgy about it because she's thinking about running in a general election, something Obama doesn't have to worry about overmuch.
Maybe he'll yet revive. No path to the nomination is ever as smooth as Hillary Clinton's looks to be right now. But Obama likely will go the way of that other earnest liberal, Bill Bradley, who high-mindedly let himself be run over by Al Gore in 2000. Oh, well. It'll be a great book.