Who's afraid of Obama?

Posted: Dec 28, 2006 12:01 AM
Who's afraid of Obama?

It's a little early to be dismissing anybody as a possible 2006 Democratic presidential nominee, but at the risk of looking silly a year from now, I want to go on record as saying that, having brooded about it a while, I think Barack Obama is a flash in the pan who is highly unlikely to be taken seriously as a presidential possibility 18 months from now.

Vice president? Maybe. President? No.

Obama has flashed across the political horizon in the last month or so like a brilliant meteor in the sky. The media have gone wild about him, and eager Democrats in New Hampshire and elsewhere have followed suit. The very fact that he has emerged, politically speaking, from nowhere -- without any record to speak of, or any experience worth mentioning -- has actually worked in his favor. We know so little about him that he is almost impossible to criticize.

Instead, people find it easy to project onto him any characteristic that appeals to them. Leftist Democrats see in him a powerful champion of their causes. Centrist Democrats are sure he is the soul of moderation. Connoisseurs of political horseflesh are captivated by his charm and easy manner. As the saying goes, what's not to like?

Well, just for one thing, there's the little matter of qualifications to be president. We tend, reasonably enough, to pick our presidents from the ranks of governors and senators, or occasionally from the higher military echelons.

Obama put in eight years in the Illinois state senate, then practically fell -- when the Republican candidate self-destructed and was replaced by an obvious sacrifice -- into a seat in the U.S. Senate. As of the moment, he has occupied that seat for a little less than two years, and I defy anyone to mention anything he has accomplished in it.

Then there's the matter of what is sometimes portentously called "gravitas." In politics, this is simply the quality of seeming to take public affairs seriously and occasionally having some reasonable things to say about them. It comes most naturally to older people, but the young can possess it too: witness John F. Kennedy, who was younger (43) than Obama is now (45) when he was elected president in 1960. But Kennedy had been a decorated PT-boat commander in World War II, and had served eight (?) years in the U.S. Senate before he entered the White House. Obama has never served in the military at all, and has the misfortune of looking even younger than his years. He looks, to be blunt about it, like a gangly kid, albeit a lovable one.

The truth is that Obama's attraction consists in large part of his sheer novelty. Hillary Clinton would be a formidable nominee -- as would Gore, Kerry, Biden and most of the other possibilities. But they have all been around since God was a child, whereas nobody ever heard of Obama until practically yesterday. Moreover, he is one of those rare black politicians who take their cue more from Bill Cosby than from Jesse Jackson. (We must, he has said, "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.") White Americans can be forgiven for being swept off their feet by an African-American who combines genuine charm with an apparent determination to bring the races together in support of principles on which we can all agree. But that's not quite the same thing as saying they are ready to install him in the White House. Obama's background is astonishingly variegated: He father was a Kenyan (whom he barely knew), his mother a Kansan who subsequently married an Indonesian. The family lived in Hawaii, then Indonesia -- where Barack went to both Muslim and Catholic schools. (Have I mentioned that his middle name is Hussein?) He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

All in all, he's quite a guy, and I predict a brilliant future for him in American politics. Hillary could do far worse than make him her running mate. Later on ... well, we'll see. But I do not expect to see him being sworn in as our president in January 2009.

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