Aura of hope propels Obama

September 26, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Barack Obama insists that he is not running for president, but he's not exactly running away from it either. Why should he? The Illinois Democrat has leaped further and faster into America's public consciousness than any presidential hopeful in memory, based on one speech.

With media following him like flies to spilled honey - all the way to Africa and back - he's kept up a full schedule of political speeches on behalf of Democrats nationwide and ranks as one of his party's most-requested fundraising guests.

But can Mr. Obama go the distance? When I caught up with him last week at a Georgetown University speech, co-sponsored by the liberal political action group, he sounded mightily adept at pleasing the party's liberal-progressive base while sticking to his own middle-of-the-road-come-together principles. Mr. Obama told me backstage that he's a realist and "a believer in facts."

Asked by a Newsweek reporter how he explains his rock-star popularity, he paused to search for the right words, then said quite candidly, "Some of it's just dumb luck."

He came along at the right time, he said.

"I think there's a hunger right now for Americans to come together, and my [2004 Senate] campaign sort of captured that hope," Mr. Obama said. "I captured that in my speech [at the 2004 Democratic National Convention], and that seemed to resonate."

Good answer. Americans like to hear hope and optimism in their leaders. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton showed that. Mr. Obama wears the aura of optimism well, which plays nicely these days as both political parties seem oddly to be wearing shrouds of gloom.

The upcoming midterm elections are haunted by a looming reality: No matter which party wins, its majority is likely to be too slim to get much important legislation passed before the 2008 presidential campaign kicks in. The result could be the worst of both worlds for leaders of the next Congress: all of the blame for what's going wrong and not enough power to earn much glory.

That has led to some widespread thinking of the unthinkable by some partisans on both sides: Would we be better off by losing?

Frustrated by President Bush's dilution of conservative ideals - expanded government, deficit spending, defiance of the Constitution, igniting a war he can't finish - some conservatives, such as National Review writers Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru, think the GOP could use a sobering timeout to rediscover its soul in time for 2008.

"My fellow Republicans," declares the Republican satirist Christopher Buckley, catching the new mood in the October issue of The Washington Monthly, "Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may [expletive deleted] things up for a change."

Of course, we should not make too much of such loser-based observations. Democrats are too hungry to let this chance slip by, and gloomy conservatives may only be getting their rationalizations lined up before an anticipated loss of power.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama may be right in his assertion that the country is ready, after years of polarized politics and wasteful bickering, for a new era of middle-ground cooperation. If so, that bodes well for a popular maverick such as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain - if conservatives in his party's base don't get in his way.

The Democrats are more complicated.

Mr. Obama would be truly audacious to run for president in his first Senate term.

Lack of Senate experience critically wounded the presidential aspirations of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - although he, like Mr. Obama, has made trips to Iowa lately. The Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, has the experience but also has a polarizing reputation that makes Democrats nervous.

With so much gloom around, no wonder Mr. Obama keeps looking better for victory-hungry Democrats.

He has a new book coming out in October titled The Audacity of Hope. It may be only a coincidence, but the book's title could describe a future Obama presidential campaign. The only question is, which year?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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