Obama without his script

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The Obama campaign has for months pursued the odd strategy of having the junior senator from Illinois act as if he were already kinda-sorta president of the United States. In June, it tried sticking a quasi-presidential seal on his lectern. Then in July, he conducted what seemed like official state visits with foreign leaders and delivered something like a "prenaugural" address in Berlin, inviting comparisons to JFK and Reagan.

It's an understandable ploy. More than most candidates, Barack Obama needs to appear like a plausible commander in chief because he's not only inexperienced (during the last Summer Olympics he was still an Illinois state legislator), he's novel. The name, the skin color, the cosmopolitan upbringing: Fair or not, all of these things give Obama the aura of otherness that is both part of his charm and a potential handicap.

If the would-be president can seem plausibly presidential, voting for him might not seem like such a crapshoot. It all makes sense, even if it fosters an air of presumptuousness.

(David Letterman recently offered a list of the top 10 signs Obama is overconfident. Among them: "Asked guy at Staples, 'Which chair will work best in an oval-shaped office?' "; "Having head measured for Mt. Rushmore;" and "Offered McCain a job in gift shop at the Obama Presidential Library.")

Now fate has given Obama a chance to be presidential rather than pretend. Taking advantage of the Olympic distraction in Beijing, the Russians invaded South Ossetia, a territory on the north side of Georgia, a democratic U.S. ally. Out of the blocks, the Russians bombed civilians, rolled tanks across an internationally recognized border and threatened to launch an all-out, destabilizing war. Now it looks as if their army has cut Georgia in two.

Moreover, Russian bombs reportedly targeted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs through Georgia on its way to the Mediterranean -- the only oil pipeline in Central Asia not under Russian control. Russia is tightening its chokehold on oil and gas at precisely the moment energy costs have become the paramount domestic issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Obama's response?

First, late Thursday evening, he gave a conventional written statement calling for calm, U.N. action and "restraint" from both sides -- followed an hour later by a slightly stronger condemnation of Russian aggression and a call for a cease-fire.

The invasion of Georgia elicited a wan written communique instead of the sort of exciting rhetoric we've come to expect from his make-believe presidency. But he did make it in front of the cameras the next day for a rally celebrating his vacation in Hawaii. He promised "to go body surfing at some undisclosed location."

During Obama's make-believe presidency, we've heard about bold action, about the courage to talk to dictators. When faced with a real "3 a.m. moment," Obama -- who boasts about 200 foreign policy advisors, broken into 10 subgroups -- proclaims, "I'm going to get some shave ice."

Now, of course, this is a bit unfair in that Obama had planned his no doubt well-deserved vacation for a very long time. But presidential vacations are always well planned -- and often interrupted.

Indeed, President Bush's jaunt to the Olympics as a "sports fan" should also have been cut short the moment tanks started rolling over a country he'd proclaimed a "beacon of liberty" during his visit there in 2005. By Monday, both Bush and Obama were playing catch-up to Sen. John McCain, who seemed to have grasped the gravity from the get-go and whose support for Georgia is long-standing. He took the lead from the outset, demanding on Friday morning an emergency meeting of NATO and Western aid to the fledgling democracy.

The geopolitical significance of Russia's invasion of Georgia at this stage is hard to gauge. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may not wish to revive the Soviet Union or the Cold War, but he clearly seeks to restore Russia's imperial stature. And Item One on that agenda is to crush Georgia's independence and smother hopes for NATO's expansion to Russia's "near abroad."

The campaign significance for Obama is easier to calculate. He has been playacting at being presidential in order to convince voters that we live in a "new moment" with "new challenges" -- and that he is the president we need for this new era.

This moment calls for more than playacting, yet Obama looks lost without a presidential script. Events in the Caucasus -- and, for that matter, in Beijing -- suggest that the times aren't so new after all. Two powerful antidemocratic foes are once again flexing their muscles at a moment when America seems weak and distracted.

That is not a new challenge but a very old one. Perhaps this is not a time for a novice spouting grand rhetoric about a new page in history, but for someone who's actually read the pages of some old, but still relevant, books. Perhaps this is not the time for playacting.

Perhaps it is not the time for body surfing?

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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