Dreaming of Obama

Ezra Klein is a writing fellow at the American Prospect. His blog is at

AS MUCH AS political junkies love the presidential horse race, their deepest affection is reserved for fantasy campaigns. Your average Democratic poll watcher or precinct walker will happily expound on his or her thoughts about the 2008 crop of candidates, but their eyes will really light up when they slip the surly bonds of reality and begin drafting titans and bigfoots, movie stars and war heroes. Oprah! Tom Hanks! Al Gore! A constitutionally incapable Bill Clinton! A resurrected FDR! A progressive shape-shifter from the Alpha Centauri quadrant!

It’s perhaps predictable that this affliction, at least for now, is most prominent among Democrats, who are understandably insecure about their party’s capability to draft winners. Surveying the field, many see a lineup of has-beens and never-wills. Charisma-challenged moderates such as Mark Warner mingle with establishment blowhards such as Joe Biden; disgraced nominees such as John Kerry threaten to drown out promising newcomers such as Russ Feingold. And who-oh-who will stop Hillary?

The latest name rippling through the Democratic ranks is Barack Obama. The half-Kenyan, Harvard-educated, hyper-charismatic senator from Illinois burst onto the national scene in 2004 when, still a state senator with higher-office hopes, he stole the Democratic convention with a soaring, heart-quickening keynote address. Since then, he’s been a rare, hyper-eloquent spot of hope in a party desperately searching for cheer.


And although he routinely reminds that he’s but a junior senator, his attributes only loom larger when transposed onto the 2008 race. In a crowd of old faces, Obama offers movie star good looks and a dazzling smile. Among a crew of (mostly) stale speakers, his rhetoric soars and excites. And in a particularly polarizing moment, he is preternaturally skilled at swelling the soul with calls for unity and national purpose. Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at the New Republic, gushes that “Obama is easily more intelligent, sophisticated and charismatic than 99% of the politicians I’ve come across,” and, just for good measure, notes that “Bill Clinton is the only one I can think of who combines all three talents in similar proportions.” Adding to the Obama mystique, Oprah Winfrey advised those seeking to draft her into the race to “take [that] energy and put it in Barack Obama.”

If Obama isn’t overtly preparing for a presidential run, he’s certainly testing the waters. Recent weeks have seen him headlining Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry, a legendary stop on the presidential aspirant road tour. While there, he had Steve Hildebrand, Al Gore’s former Iowa director, introduce him to the state’s activists. And the attention was only enhanced when Illinois state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who challenged Obama in the 2004 Democratic primary, released an open letter urging the young senator to run for president in 2008.

OK Democrats, deep breath. Despite Obama’s undeniable magnetism and star power, he’s not your guy. Not yet.

For now, Obama is a cipher, an easy repository for the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere. He had the good fortune to run his first statewide (and nationally noticed) election against Chicago investment banker Jack Ryan, who dropped out because of a sex scandal, and then the brilliant performance artist (c’mon -- you don’t really believe that guy’s serious, do you?) Alan Keyes. It’s easy to focus on lofty ideals and shining rhetoric if you don’t have an opponent and need never enter the muck of a competitive campaign.

But if Obama avoided being battle-tested in 2004 by the grace of God, it’s his own timidity that has kept his name clean since.

Given his national profile and formidable political talents, he could have been a potent spokesman for Democratic causes in the Senate. Instead, he has refused to expend his political or personal capital on a single controversial issue, preferring to offer anodyne pieces of legislation and sign on to the popular efforts of others.


The closest he came to a showdown was when he sought to ignore John McCain’s bipartisan group and decided instead to draft strong new ethics rules for the Senate. McCain flew into a public rage, and Obama backed down; no powerful bill was ever passed.

Indeed, Obama is that oddest of all creatures: a leader who’s never led. There are no courageous, lonely crusades to his name, or supremely unlikely electoral battles beneath his belt. He won election running basically unopposed, and then refused to open himself to attack by making a controversial but correct issue his own.

Is that evidence of youth, or timidity? Does he hold no unpopular opinions, or does he simply avoid conflict? How would he react to fusillades launched by able opponents?

For now, nobody knows. But given the smear campaign launched against every recent Democratic nominee, grace and strength under fire should be proven qualities before Democrats even consider a potential candidate.

There are, to be sure, ways Obama could prove his mettle, not to mention his priorities. He could, say, make universal healthcare coverage his public obsession or demand an end to the war in Iraq. He could fight for full public financing of all campaigns, or seek a national living wage.

But until then, if Obama gleams, Democrats have no way of knowing if it’s because he’s truly an action hero or because he’s refused to step out of his packaging. And until that question is answered, the hardened fighters they know are preferable to the attractive cipher they don’t.