How Now, Barack?
Ezra has some thoughts on Barack Obama:
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.
Obama is charismatic and a powerful speaker, and Jeebus knows the Democrats are in dire need of those. But despite the eagerness of many to place their hopes for the future in him, he has done little to merit it beyond earning high marks for presentation — he has a tendency to regularly repeat GOP talking points in a way that damage the party, an unfortunate quality in someone who has hopes of leading it.
It would be nice to see Obama take on a tough issue and do battle over it, maybe show his willingness to spend some of the good will he has accrued on something important, something that wasn't "safe," something that would force him out of the Republican comfort zone — if only to see what he's made of.
The jury is definitely still out.