The 2008 presidential election promises to be one of the more interesting in modern memory, as it will be the first time in over half a century that both parties will have open fields which do not include a sitting president or vice president. This has created a predictable outcome where everyone who has ever harbored any aspirations at the highest office in the land – in both parties – is indicating interest in running.
Today I want to focus on one of these people: Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois. Obama exploded on the scene in 2004 when he gave the roundly praised keynote address at the Democratic National Convention which nominated John Kerry. In the speech, Obama made a passionate call for unity – taking aim at the false binary of “red” and “blue” states which has so often been used as a divisive wedge. Moreover, Obama’s biography as a half-Kenyan, half-Kansan on his way to becoming the third black senator since Reconstruction made him the perfect person to give such a speech. The combination of all of these factors made Obama an overnight national name and a media darling with everyone asking if he would run for president – even as early as 2008.
Until recently, Obama had insisted that he was not running for president in 2008, but according to many news reports, he seems to be reconsidering the prospect. Moreover, given that he has written a new book and is promoting it across the country, his actions are doing little to tamp down presidential speculation. Democrats, and even some conservatives, are swooning at the prospect of Obama running in ’08. Conservative David Brooks recently wrote that Obama should run in 2008 for multiple reasons, including his biography and his style of “conversation, deliberation and reconciliation” which is marked by his “compulsive tendency to see both sides of any issue.” These are largely the same reasons many liberals I know want him to run.
In the end, while I sympathize with this reasoning, I don’t think it is enough to support someone as a presidential candidate. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the attraction of Obama’s persona and of his “deliberative style.” After eight years of having a petulant fake-cowboy man-child as president, a smart and humble person would be a breath of fresh air. However, Democrats should not be intent to settle for a great biography and someone who can think and string a coherent sentence together. We should also require that our candidate lead, and on this measure I don’t think Obama is there yet. In fact, his “deliberative style” is the primary factor getting in the way of his being a leader.
This has not always been the case. When Obama ran for his Senate seat, he showed leadership potential by loudly and forcefully denouncing the invasion of Iraq even before it began. But since entering the Senate, Obama has too often not been out front on the most important issues of the day. Some will say that this is because he is new to the club and does not yet have stature. The only problem with this reasoning is that it ignores Obama’s status as a media darling. Whenever he speaks, people come to listen. Despite this, he has not used this position to speak for redeployment out of Iraq and he did not come to the aid of fellow Senator Russ Feingold when Feingold called for censuring the president over his illegal wiretapping.
This is not to say that Obama has been a bad senator, but rather that he has not used his unique position to lead. What Obama ultimately needs to recognize is that a deliberative, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style is not always what is needed. There are some issues where it is not proper to express ambivalence – war and blatant violations of the Constitution are among these. His recent vote against the Military Commissions Act shows that he might be recognizing this, but still I await more evidence.
Finally, if the last election taught us anything, it is that a “deliberative style” can easily be portrayed as a “flip-flopper,” as it did in the case of John Kerry. Democrats can avoid a repeat of this if we pick a forceful leader in 2008 to be our presidential nominee. Right now, Obama does not fit the bill.
Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]