What is Obama up to?

Posted: Oct 31, 2006 12:01 AM
What is Obama up to?

The other day Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., astounded a lot of political observers (including this one) by confessing to an interviewer that he is indeed considering running for the presidency in 2008.

Obama is probably the most attractive and interesting African-American political figure in the country. Only 45 and a lawyer by profession, he served four years in the Illinois State Senate, then vaulted to national prominence by winning election to the U.S. Senate just short of two years ago. Intelligent, articulate, soft-spoken and smooth, he was tapped by the Democrats to give the keynote address at their 2004 national convention when he was still only the Democratic nominee for the Senate (though a highly likely winner). The speech was a smash hit, and Obama went on to win his Senate race by the widest victory margin in Illinois history. Since then he has spoken all over the country for fellow Democrats, acquiring debts of gratitude, to be cashed later, and becoming a national celebrity.

But to confess to ambitions for the presidency, after less than two years in the Senate? It no doubt won the prize for honesty, but had all the earmarks of political folly. Many observers (again, including this one) thought he would make a terrifically attractive running mate for Hillary Clinton when the Ice Queen accepted her seemingly inevitable nomination for the presidency from her admiring fellow Democrats in 2008. It is almost certain that the same thought crossed the mind of Sen. Clinton. But for Obama to suggest that he is considering running for the top spot himself implies that he does not regard the nomination of Sen. Clinton as all that inevitable. In the circumstances, it was little short of an insult -- rather like someone rising during a wedding ceremony and explaining, when the ritual question is asked, why the happy couple ought not to be joined in holy matrimony after all.

To be sure, other prominent Democrats -- Kerry, Gore and Edwards, to mention only three -- have similarly hinted at their own availability, and thereby indicated that they are less than overwhelmed by Hillary. But they are far more senior figures in the party than Obama, and were far less likely to be tapped as her running mate. If a Clinton-Obama ticket were to be nominated and win, or even lose, Obama would be poised for a presidential nomination in the future. Instead, he has chosen to flick an unmistakable gob of mud in the lady's eye.

The likeliest explanation is that Hillary's personality, and her other notoriously big negatives as a candidate, have seriously undermined the willingness of many victory-minded Democratic politicians to nominate her.

Despite her 100 percent name recognition, her tens of millions in campaign funds in the bank, and the consummate skill of her husband as an adviser, she may yet wind up losing primaries to rivals deemed likelier to win in November. And, if so, why shouldn't Barack Obama be one of them?

That, at any rate, seems to be Obama's calculation. Thus far he has done remarkably well by shooting for the sky. Why change that strategy now?

He certainly can't be accused of being unfamiliar with the world. He was born in Hawaii in 1961, of a Kenyan father (who returned there and died in an automobile accident in 1982) and a mother from Kansas, who next married an Indonesian. The family moved to Indonesia, where Barack Jr. attended both Muslim and Catholic schools before returning to Hawaii. He went on to Occidental College (Los Angeles) and Columbia University, then knocked the socks off of Harvard Law School by becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude. He moved to Chicago because it is his wife's hometown.

Politically, Obama's record to date has been rather ambiguous, largely because it has been so dolefully short. But that merely means there is little he can be criticized for. From here on out, he can design it to fit his ambitions. And there is little doubt what those are.