Those who deride Sen. Barack Obama’s (D.-Ill.) lack of experience and criticize the broad generalities and banalities that festoon his best-selling book miss the key point: His inexperience is an asset because he enters national politics as a blank canvas on which he can paint whatever he chooses. With only two years in the Senate, he is less like a politician running for president than like a general — think Eisenhower in 1952 or even the abortive candidacy of Colin Powell in 1995 — or a businessman, like Ross Perot in 1992.
It’s not that he doesn’t have a record. It’s that the record doesn’t really matter because it is so short. His Senate tenure is so abbreviated that he can be whatever he says he is, not just as a political contrivance to get elected, but genuinely to articulate a philosophy and make it his guiding principle both while seeking office and serving in it. He’s that virginal.
So far, Obama seems very conscious that his liberal, party-line voting record is not a good foundation for his national ambitions. He seems aware that the country wants more of a post-partisan, embodying the consensus to which Americans have come over these recent dangerous and bitter years.
American politics alternates between periods in which we welcome partisan debate and those in which we demand consensus and conclusion. Confronted by new issues we turn to the left and to the right and ask each side to develop its ideas and flesh out its alternative for our consideration. During these times, moderates and synthesizers are doomed to defeat since they seem to ignore the problem, while polarizing figures take over. But once the debate has run its course, we make our collective national decisions and are no longer in the mood for unending debate. We want our will to be done by our elected officials with no more quarreling or sniping.
Obama has the opportunity to embody the emerging consensus, a broad national agreement reached from observation of trial and error over the past half decade. The bloody futility of our efforts to build a nation in Iraq have left us still committed to aggressive efforts to hunt down terrorists but determined to extricate ourselves from the mire. The effectiveness of our homeland security efforts and our concomitant horror at instances of mistaken imprisonment and unnecessarily intrusive government investigations have led us to demand a balance between aggressive investigation and protection of civil liberties. We want terrorists caught, interrogated, and locked up, but not tortured or sadistically humiliated.
Obama’s book reflects an intuitive grasp of this emerging consensus even if his voting record does not signal his agreement with it.
But if the Illinois senator decides to articulate this synthesis, the question will be whether he can find sufficient traction on the center-left to give his candidacy viability. He will have to compete for that ground with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D.-N.Y.), but her reputation for strident advocacy and take-no-prisoners partisanship will likely give him an edge in going after Bill Clinton’s former constituents among the New Democrats. And Obama enjoys an ethnic and demographic base that can augment his converts among moderate white Democrats.
John Edwards, for all of the eloquence of his announcement statement, is ultimately running on the issue of national poverty against a woman and an African-American. That’s not going to work. His campaign might have gained traction against another field of candidates, but it is unlikely that he can get it on track against these two particular opponents.
So we wait for Barack Obama to define himself. If he runs to the left, he will be a worthy successor to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If he runs to the center, he might be a successor to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He might just make it to the White House.