As we approach the final weeks of the 2008 presidential election, it is quite possible that the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, will be elected to the highest office in the nation. The real consequences of this are difficult to know in advance, but there are some notable qualities of the Obama candidacy beyond the fact that he would become the first African American to become president of the United States.
I think the most notable is the fact that, considering his experience, Mr. Obama would be the first “amateur” to reach the Oval Office. Technically speaking, Mr. Obama is not a pure amateur, having served in the Illinois state Senate, and completed three years of his first six-year U.S. Senate term. But compared to every other major party candidate for president in the past 100 years, with the exception of 1940 Republican nominee Wendell Willkie, he has the slightest political background of any serious aspirant.
In Mr. Obama, whose primary background in politics was as a community organizer in Illinois, there is little executive experience on which to judge how he might govern. His skillful use of the caucus-system aspect of the presidential nominating process, and his endurance through a late resurgence of his major Democratic opponent in the closing primaries tell us that he has excellent political talent. His oratory before large crowds and record-breaking fundraising ability reinforces these campaign skills.
On the other hand, his behavior and response to the recent international crisis following the Russian invasion of Georgia, indicates his lack of experience in foreign affairs. His public comments were those of an amateur statesman, especially in contrast to his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, who had a sober, thoughtful public response.
On domestic issues, Mr. Obama is making a commendable and predictable move to the political center, although while doing so he has again demonstrated a lack of executive experience, hesitating and speaking ambiguously on numerous issues involving the economy, the environment and taxes. He lacks the command of issues that was always demonstrated by Bill Clinton as he ran successfully for president the first time in 1992. Mr. Clinton, although a new national face that year, was a professional politician if there ever was one, and genuinely knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. He was able to persuade the nation that he could govern.
Many months ago, when it seemed likely that Mr. Obama would be nominated by his party over Sen. Hillary Clinton, I warned on these pages that such an outcome might produce “buyer’s remorse” later in the political calendar. That is what appears to be happening now, after Mr. Obama enjoyed initial large leads over Mr. McCain in public opinion polls.
The quadrennial presidential election always gives voters an opportunity to think about what is important to them, and in what general direction they want the nation to go. Each presidential election has its own set of historical circumstances, and when neither major party candidate is an incumbent, the choice is always more complicated.
In 2008, the controversial and problematic war in Iraq and its aftermath appears to be drawing to a close. The successful military surge has apparently enabled the civilian Iraqi government and its security forces to take increasing command of their own destiny.
American voters expressed their dissatisfaction with conditions in Iraq in 2006, and the Bush administration was forced to respond. In 2008, Iraq does not appear to be a major issue.
New foreign-policy crises and challenges appear. Today, Russia seems to be reappearing as an aggressive and combative force in Central Europe. There are revived fears of a new cold war. The last Cold War (1948-1990) came to a successful conclusion only after several American presidents confronted the Soviet Union militarily and economically.
Mr. Obama has yet to tell the American voter how he will respond in these circumstances. His stated call for “more diplomacy” sounds naive, and more like a response to the Iraq crisis now past than a plan for dealing with the complex issues in American policy ahead.
As the just-negotiated truce agreement between Russia and Georgia demonstrates, diplomacy that is not backed by tough negotiation is likely to fail. (President Nicolas Sarkozy of France negotiated the truce, but the Russian president put ambiguous terms in the agreement that apparently enable Russian troops to remain in Georgia at will.)
In spite of Bush “fatigue” and the clear advantage Democrats have in 2008, the nation’s voters are holding back about Mr. Obama so far. The issue is not race; the issue is whether the nation is going to take a chance on an amateur president or whether it wants an experienced professional on the job in these very dangerous and uncertain times.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.