Barack Obama, the rookie U.S. senator from Illinois, is looking out at America from the cover of this week’s Time magazine. It must be said that this is not so much for what he has done, but for what he might do. Obama ranks 99th in Senate seniority and has been there for less than two years. Still, he admits to giving serious thought to a run for president in 2008.
Obama has become one of the few Democratic stars on this year’s campaign trail, with appearances like the one this week in Indiana for three U.S. House candidates who are among the most likely Democratic pick-ups in the midterm election. Another stop was Iowa, first in the nation with its 2008 caucuses, territory already heavily populated by nearly a dozen other Democratic presidential hopefuls, all far ahead of Barack Obama with their campaign plans.
Why would Obama run so soon? The cliché about him is “rock-star” charisma and movie-star good looks. But isn’t it possible that he is more of a comet than a star? What has he actually accomplished in the Senate, critics ask? Why should he think of the presidency before he finds a real identity on the national stage, before he steps up to a single controversial issue or finds a profile-in-courage moment?
All valid questions, but, maybe for these times, they are not the right ones to ask. Democratic leaders saw something in Barack Obama when they picked him to deliver the 2004 keynote address, and he performed beyond all expectations. In his Senate race that year, he was lucky beyond belief when his primary and general election challengers both imploded. In winning a 70 percent majority, this African-American son of a Kenyan father and Kansas mother proved a powerful magnet for votes across party and racial lines.
It can be said that he has used his short time in the Senate to expand his horizons. This past summer Obama and his family visited five countries in Africa, including the Kenyan village of his father’s birth. There he challenged local leaders by renouncing the ethnic-based politics of the region. In January, he traveled to the Middle East, including Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. He visited the troops in Iraq. Obama has opposed the war since 2002 and said in his keynote address, “When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect of the world.” How many Americans would now disagree?
Before Africa and Iraq, Obama traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe in a delegation that included Sen. Richard Lugar, not a bad mentor on the now critical issue of nuclear nonproliferation. Lugar and Obama have since partnered on two pieces of legislation, one to expand nonproliferation programs to conventional weapons and another to increase investment in biomass ethanol.
Obama does not exploit his celebrity in the Senate. He does his homework and tries to fit in, as he did in his state Senate days in Illinois, where his legislative record focused on AIDS prevention, death penalty reform and health insurance. Thus, he is considered a good, solid freshman, not a showboat.
Why run for president now? Because the time is right. In 1959, former President Harry Truman counseled John F. Kennedy to stay in the Senate, get a little more seasoning. But Kennedy understood that the country was at the end of eight years of Eisenhower, and if he did not run in 1960 the chance might pass.
Obama would add energy and a message of inclusion to the Democratic mix in 2008. His candidacy would enable the party to add millions of unregistered black voters to the rolls, possibly making a few Southern and border states competitive in the general election. If he does as well as I think he could, he might win the nomination, or, as John Edwards did in 2004, wind up on the ticket in the second spot. Many believe the most likely route for the first black president will be through the vice presidency. So, I say: “Run, Barack, run!”