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Perspective

Audacity of hope or maybe of hype

By ALAN GREENBLATT AND A.G. NEWMYER III Special to the Times
Published January 21, 2007


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Inside the Beltway, the Baracklash has begun.

It started even before last week's announcement by Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, of a presidential exploratory committee. Washington whisperers rechristened his bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope, instead titling it The Audacity of Hype.

"He's a political phenomenon," Whit Ayres, a veteran political consultant, told the Chicago Tribune. "But being a political phenomenon does not make you a credible candidate to be commander in chief of the armed forces and leader of the free world in a time of war."

Ayres is a Republican, but plenty of Democrats are also questioning Obama's credibility. Complaints about his lack of experience infuse every capital discussion about the chances of the 45-year-old candidate-to-be.

There are questions about whether he is too liberal, whether he has stumbled already by getting himself involved in a shady land deal, and whether the country is ready to elect a black president. But always the complaint returns to inexperience. Or more precisely, has Obama paid his dues?

Yet, that's a funny complaint. True, he's been in the U.S. Senate for only two years (after serving in the Illinois Senate for eight). But the other two leading Democratic contenders - Hillary Clinton and John Edwards - can boast of only six years' Senate tenure apiece. The three in total have less than half the congressional experience of either Joe Biden or Christopher Dodd, two decidedly second-tier presidential candidates.

What the punditocracy is really trying to say is that Obama hasn't played by the rules. He has been too busy wowing the public to have spent the requisite years courting them.

At this stage of the game, the chattering class in Washington believes it should be performing the great public function of vetting candidates by spending countless hours at casual dinners with them or tagging along for SUV rides around Iowa. In The Way to Win, their recent book about presidential politics, Mark Halperin and John Harris say that Washington political insiders "believe it is crucial, before real votes get cast, that someone (meaning themselves) probe deeply and pass judgment" on candidates. Obama has skipped all that and gone directly to "go."

"He didn't get their permission," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. That's why reporters and columnists who are accustomed to having the attention of candidates all to themselves at this point are ambivalent about someone who is already a better draw, as the governor of New Hampshire quipped, than the Rolling Stones.

"The pundit class might not get that ready access to the two top Democratic candidates that they've normally been used to in this pre-election year," says Rhodes Cook, who writes an independent newsletter on politics. "That's something they might well regret, if not take umbrage to."

Many Washington pundits do, in fact, regret the crowds that Obama and Clinton attract. They believe that their traditional work in getting to know and learning to explain relatively unknown candidates such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton provides an important service in separating the greats from the cranks.

Today's celebrity candidates won't grant them the same kind of intimate access. It's a problem, suggests Walter Shapiro, Washington bureau chief for the online magazine Salon, that every public move Obama makes is already recorded by so many clicking cameras that "it's like speaking above the roar of the crickets."

Obama's choreographed plans to formally announce his candidacy will feed their fears. He intends to make his run official on Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's home, two days before Lincoln's birthday. His point? America's 16th president did not have much government experience either - one term in Congress, four in the frontier Illinois House - but led the nation through trying times.

The complaints of the pundits are not based purely in vanity. They believe that the years they've devoted to the study of politics make them superior arbiters of potential presidents than, say, People magazine, which just featured a bare-chested Obama as one of its "beach babes."

But because voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will also get less quality time than they're used to, Shapiro says, "There is a larger problem. Does something get lost if a presidential candidate is never seen in a natural setting by anyone during the entire presidential campaign?"

This may be overstating things. Obama will still spend days in early primary states visiting bowling alleys and the living rooms of local activists - just not as much as his lesser-known peers of the past (or present). And people in those states, who have already warmed to Obama in a way that the pundits never really expected, ultimately won't care what those pundits think anyway.

That's why the concerns expressed by parts of political Washington ultimately may backfire, helping Obama position himself, with his limited Senate experience, as a Washington outsider.

"I'm not sure that it matters to the American public what the Washington punditocracy thinks about anybody," says Ron Elving, Washington editor for National Public Radio.

Alan Greenblatt writes the Observer column for Governing magazine. A.G. Newmyer III is managing director of U.S. Fiduciary Advisors and a Washington consultant.

[Last modified January 22, 2007, 11:09:43]


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