At some point in the car, I finally ask Obama if he’s ruled out running for president in 2008—dumbly thinking, as so many journalists dumbly do, that maybe I’d have more luck getting to the bottom of this question by asking it in the negative. “Well, I mean, you know,” he says. “People have asked me if I’m running in ’08, and I’ve said no. And if I change my mind, I’ll let you guys know.”
So he has kept the door ajar. He is saying he could change his mind.
Does he have a fantasy candidate for the Democrats in ’08?
Obama could always be vice-president. In Washington, Democrats love to kick that idea around, though most people seem to agree he’d have to be paired off with someone more experienced, and that it couldn’t be Hillary. “Look,” says strategist Joe Trippi, who’s worked on the campaigns of many black candidates. “If Obama won the presidential nomination, he couldn’t pick a Latino to be his vice-president, right? So if Hillary wins the nomination …” He doesn’t finish the sentence. “I’m trying to deal with the political reality here.” But he does think Obama would make a compelling running-mate to someone like Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana (“Missouri could come into play”) or Governor Mark Warner of Virginia. “If he were paired with someone from the Midwest or the South,” says Trippi, “it’d be an electrifying ticket.” (Though if Al Gore ran in 2008 and chose Obama, he’d be the first presidential candidate in history to have selected both a Jew and a black man as his running mates—not a bad epitaph.)
“Barack may be the first post-ideological candidate,” says Rahm Emanuel.
“Name me a state he can’t go to,” he says. “John McCain can go to New York all he wants, but it ain’t gonna happen. New York ain’t gonna vote for him. Or George Allen, for that matter”—a Republican senator from Virginia, also a presidential hopeful—“or Mitt Romney.” (The governor of Massachusetts.) “But I think Barack could be a player in all 50 states, if he wants to. Or 40. There are states we have lost, historically, that he’d be a major player in.”
“I don’t want people to pretend I’m not black,” says Obama.
Perhaps he’s right. But we have seen this before. Bill Clinton also spoke of a Third Way, won red states, and appealed to all races and creeds. (In fact, didn’t Toni Morrison call him the first black president?) His speech at the official opening of his library even echoed Obama’s keynote address, in the part where the president called himself “a little bit of red and a little bit of blue.”
It’s possible, in other words, that Obama isn’t a harbinger of anything to come, but is a singular personality, much like Bill Clinton. As Emanuel says, “People are interested in Barack as a person. Nobody gives a shit about me as a person.”
And if that’s the case, Obama can afford to wait. Because let’s face it: Obama is really green. People love to compare him to JFK, but Kennedy had at least served a full Senate term before announcing his candidacy, plus six years in the House. We don’t know whether Obama has a lot of policy imagination, nor is it clear what his vision of a post-baby-boomer agenda looks like.
Obama-in-’08 enthusiasts still think it’s worth the risk. Wait longer, and you become an insider. You start speaking like a cyborg. You become burdened by your own voting record. You lose touch.
But is that what being an insider is? A function of time? A matter of place?
Read Dreams From My Father, and it’s pretty clear Obama has always been an outsider. As a kid, he wound up in untold family scrapbooks of strangers, because his white grandfather would tell staring tourists that he was the great-grandson of King Kamehameha, the first monarch of Hawaii. In college, he envied the “authenticity” of the black kids who grew up in big families in urban settings, knowing he grew up on Waikiki beach. And when he finally traveled to Kenya, a trip he believed would be his own version of Roots, he realized he was both a native and a stranger. Yes, he could “experience the freedom that comes from not being watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it’s supposed to grow and your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway.” But at the same time, he saw how disenfranchised his own Kenyan relations felt. One asked him for money. Another, his half-brother, listened to him with only half a heart when Obama tried to give him career advice. “He must have been wondering,” Obama wrote, “why my rules somehow applied to him.”