Obama’s response to such criticism is to point out that he’s been constrained by his status and circumstances: a freshman senator in the minority party. “I’ve got a lot of clout,” he jokes. “I went from 99th to 98th in seniority this year.”
A clever line, sure, but patently bogus—for, given the extent of Obama’s celebrity, he’s hardly an ordinary backbencher. Yet how many times has he used his megaphone to advance a bold initiative or champion a controversial cause? Zero. Instead, Obama has tempered his once-fiery stances on such issues as Iraq and health care; his proposals on alternative energy and global warming are weak beer compared with those of, say, Al Gore. He seems a man laboring to stay something of a cipher—a strategy no less calculated than Hillary’s conspicuous lunges to the center or McCain’s lurches to the right.
Obama seems to be laboring to remain something of a cipher—a strategy no less calculated than Clinton’s or McCain’s.
Plainly, this strategy has worked for Obama so far. The excitement he’s generated isn’t issue-based: It’s stylistic. His popularity is rooted in his calm, consensus-seeking, deliberative demeanor and in his calls to common purpose. The question, however, is how well this brand of popularity will hold up when voters learn more about him—from trivial things, such as the fact that he’s a smoker, to his fairly conventional liberal policy positions—in the course of a primary campaign. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key early states, his leading rivals (Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, perhaps Gore) are known commodities, whose supporters are well aware of who they are, warts and all. Nothing remotely similar can be said right now of Obama.
Nor is the process likely to be forgiving of his screwups—the gaffes, the ill-timed revelations, the poorly vetted contributors.
And let’s not forget, Obama will enter the race a remarkably untested candidate by almost any standard. None of his races for State Senate were competitive—he ran in an effectively all-blue district. His election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 came after Jack Ryan, his Republican opponent, quit the contest after being ensnared in a sex scandal and was replaced by (ahem) Alan Keyes. In his new book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama notes that neither Ryan nor Keyes ran a single negative TV ad against him.
All of which suggests why, for all the (reasonable) concerns about her prospects in a general election, Hillary Clinton remains—and will continue to remain, regardless of Obama’s entry—the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination. She has the money. She has the résumé. She has the policy chops, the shrewdest political adviser on the planet (i.e., her husband), and the unwavering allegiance of a substantial bloc of her party’s primary voters. A recent Fox News poll put her support among Democrats at 33 percent—compared with just 12 percent for Obama, 11 percent for Gore, and 8 percent for Edwards. And in a head-to-head matchup, Clinton beat Obama by a fat margin of 52 to 30.
What Obama has going for him that Hillary does not is that people genuinely like him. The power of personality in politics cannot be overstated. Duh. And neither can the appeal of a leader who promises to deliver us from the tired and tiresome contours—the moralism, narcissism, condescension, and histrionics—of civic discourse as practiced by the baby-boom generation. The essence of Obama’s pitch is that it’s time to move past the old politics and that he’s the embodiment of the new. And after the scorched-earth tactics and wretched polarization of the Clinton-Bush years, anyone who dismisses the potency of that message hasn’t been paying attention.
It’s worth noting, though, that assaults on “old politics” have been tried before—most famously by Bobby Kennedy. It’s also worth noting that Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 demonstrated the limits of such a stratagem. One of the great and dogged myths of our recent political history—a myth propagated by that boomer cohort and one implicit in Bobby, Emilio Estevez’s current piece of cinematic hagiography—is that, if not for Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy would have marched to the Democratic nomination and then to the presidency. Yet almost every serious scholar of 1968 holds a different view: The likeliest outcome was that RFK, for all the passion he inspired, was going to lose to Hubert Humphrey, old politics personified.
No one, obviously, can know for sure about that, just as no one can say with any certainty what 2008 holds for Obama. But, win or lose, Obama’s prospective candidacy has already changed the game. He’s already tested Hillary Clinton, and is making the rest of the field redefine themselves. But the bigger test will be for himself.