Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Did you know Sen. Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein? You do now.

Make no mistake: If he decides to run for president, quite a few people will be reminding you of it. Those people are not his friends.

It’s funny how much people don’t know about the Illinois Democrat, even as he rides a wave of rapturous news coverage. Santa Claus could hardly have drawn more excited crowds than those that turned out for Mr. Obama in New Hampshire. Almost no reporter seems to be able get through an entire Obama story without using the phrase “rock star.”

Despite his brief Senate experience, he’s the only Democratic hopeful waging a serious challenge to New York’s Sen. Hillary Clinton in the polls. Yet, hardly anyone knows much about him. A hefty 40 percent of the Democrats surveyed in the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion on him.

Remarkably that seems to work in his favor. As with Colin Powell, the last viable black candidate who generated this type of, OK, rock-star excitement, Mr. Obama benefits from the Rorschach ink-blot test factor: People see in him what they want to see in a presidential candidate.

Candidate McDreamy’s balloon has left potential foes so little to puncture that some have begun to pick on his middle name. Republican consultant Ed Rogers’ frustration was showing in the way he emphasized Mr. Obama’s middle name on MSNBC’s “Hardball”: “Count me as someone who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama,” he said, pronouncing “Barack” in a way that rhymed with hard rock.

Conservative radio windbag Rush Limbaugh similarly delights in mocking Mr. Obama’s full name. El Rush-bo even posted a caricature on his Web site of Obama with huge floppy ears and the title “Barack Hussein Odumbo.” Cute. Sort of like the class clown taking on the class valedictorian and prom king who is also basketball team captain.

For the record, Mr. Obama’s middle name comes from his Muslim grandfather, a Kenyan farmer, and his father, a Kenyan government economist. And, to put the anxieties of Islamophobic bloggers to rest, the senator is a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. In advertising terms, diversity is his brand.

So, in New Hampshire and in a Thursday meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, he joked about the middle-name thing with just the right tone: astute, self-deprecating humor. His middle name is no big deal, he says, “when you are already starting with ‘Barack Obama.’ ”

The H-for-Hussein bomb is probably a love tap compared to what’s in store for him if he decides to run for president. He knows. Obama has been in Chicago long enough to know that politics is not a pillow fight.

We know from his autobiography “Dreams from My Father,” that he tried marijuana and cocaine in his wayward youth, a refreshingly straightforward and revealing contrast to President Bush, who dodged probing drug questions as a candidate, and President Bill Clinton, who claimed never to have inhaled.

Mr. Obama’s candor also has been his best defense against his only connection to scandal so far. He acknowledged in the Tribune meeting that “it was stupid” and “boneheaded” of him to purchase a strip of property a year ago that adjoined his $1.65 million home from Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a political insider and fund-raiser. Mr. Rezko has since pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to extort campaign donations and kickbacks from firms seeking state business.

Mr. Obama, who bought the home with his hefty advance for his latest book, is not accused of wrongdoing, just stupidity, as he says, for letting himself be associated with even the appearance of shadiness. As Chicago scandals go, that would be small potatoes for Mr. Obama were he not the nationally adored embodiment of the audacious hope that his book’s title touts.

As a practical matter, the Rezko flap is not likely to hurt him in a race against Hillary Clinton, who had a questionable land deal called “Whitewater” in her own past. But, if anyone else is looking for attack ad material, they’ll grab whatever mud they can find.

After running successfully for the Senate as “the tall, skinny kid with the funny-sounding name,” Mr. Obama knows how to turn potential lemons into lemonade. So far, his candor has worked for him. But, despite the current holiday-season media hype, the 2008 election is still two years away. Political honeymoons quickly end. Soon people want to know what you really believe.

With that in mind, I hope Mr. Obama runs. I want to see how candid he will be when it really counts.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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