On February 10 he will tell us if he's running. Then he'll have about 20 months to tell us what he wants to do if elected president. Who is this political phenomenon and what does he have to offer?
Illinois Senator Barack Obama is exciting because he looks new and sounds different. Millions of Americans are tired of politics as usual—increasingly partisan and nasty. He appears to be as dissatisfied as many of us are with Washington's tiresome, unproductive games and liturgies. And he speaks of Christian faith as part of his reason for dissatisfaction.
He says in his speeches and in his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope, that he wants to transcend "the smallness of our politics" and lead a "project of national renewal." In his web-site announcement on January 16, he identified himself with those who are hungry for "a different kind of politics." It is not clear, however, what Obama means by a new politics. He sounds like a creative moderate, but his voting record is that of a traditional liberal Democrat.
Former Senator Gary Hart says that "truly great leaders possess a strategic sense, an inherent understanding of how the framework of their thinking and the tides of the times fit together and how their nation's powers should be applied to achieve its large purposes." Obama's new book "is missing that strategic sense," says Hart (New York Times Book Review, 12/24/06). Will the Senate newcomer be able to develop that sense in the coming months?
The challenge Obama faces is considerable. A vast majority of Americans is dissatisfied with the George W. Bush administration, and a narrower majority expressed its distaste for the Republican-controlled Congress last November. But only 12 years ago a majority was fed up with the Democratic-controlled Congress. Americans can more easily say what they don't want than what they want. And when they express their desires, it is usually in the contradictory language of asking government to elevate the nation and solve big problems but without raising taxes or burdening them with too much red tape.
Obama must do at least three things to become a leader and not blaze and fall like a shooting star.
First, he will have to cast his Senate votes during the next two years in ways that give us a glimpse of his creative plans for the future. The Senate provides him with a large platform on which to craft bills and amendments, explain his votes, and build on those actions to define his campaign for national renewal. If his Senate performance does not reveal something unusual, I'll predict that he is going to rely on personality and rhetoric to try to win a popularity contest in 2008. But that's not new; that's old politics.
Second, Senator Obama needs to begin to identify and shape the team he wants to work with if elected president. Only foolish or forgetful voters believe that a popular lone ranger can change Washington and the world after entering the White House. Who will help Obama fashion his policy agenda? Who will help him work in a bipartisan way with Congress? Who will help him break the chains of the old politics? Without answers to these questions, there is little reason to expect much that is new.
Finally, Obama must show what he intends to do about the critical condition of our national electoral and legislative systems. The reason today's politics is so "bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence" (as he says in his book), is that interest-group politics, congressional management, and the electoral system reinforce one another to produce the outcomes we experience. Obama winning an election will change none of this. As president he will have little power to advance a new politics unless during the campaign he declares his intention to reform systems and then, after victory, leads Congress to make substantial changes. If he doesn't do that, today's voters will again—and quickly—be searching for someone new to redeem the nation in 2012.
— James W. Skillen, President
Center for Public Justice