Dateline 17 January 2007
In a matter of months, since speculation first began late last year, Barack Obama has established himself as one of the three front-runners for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. It is a remarkable achievement for a man less than halfway through his first term as a US Senator.
First, his difficulties. He is a Senator. In Obama’s lifetime four men whose most senior elected office was US Senator have been nominated for the Presidency: Kerry, Dole, McGovern and Goldwater. Are we seeing a pattern here? Of the Senators who became Vice-President and then sought the Presidency – Gore, Mondale, Nixon and Humphrey – one was elected. But as Nixon and Humphrey fought each other, that was pretty much inevitable. Governors – Bush (the younger), Clinton, Dukakis, Reagan and Carter – have a far more impressive electoral record.
Second, he is relatively inexperienced. All the other Senators who have been nominated for the Presidency had much longer Washington careers, and they still lost.
Third, he is Black. Research suggests that up to 40% of Democrats would desert their party if it nominated a Black candidate.
Of course all these challenges are opportunities too. Senators have a pretty good record of winning nominations, and the current focus on national security issues may make it harder for a governor to win.
His relatively short tenure in the Senate may be an advantage. The Senate puts people on the record. If a Senator votes against a composite motion supporting peace, love and murder, he will forever after be labeled as someone who voted against peace and love. His principal rivals – Clinton and Edwards – have served barely any longer, and each has served only in the US Senate. Obama previously served in the Illinois state Senate, and has ten years of public service on his résumé, compared with six each for Clinton and Edwards.
Thirdly, the figures show that up to 40% of Democrats would desert a Black candidate. But it, plainly, depends on the candidate. Al Sharpton would undoubtedly be a disaster. Barack Obama is a very different candidate. Being Black is probably an advantage in the primaries. In early voting South Carolina almost half the registered Democrats are Black. In Missouri (voting the same day) and Michigan (a few days later) the proportion is almost as high, and these states are in the same region as Obama’s native Illinois.
The case for Obama is straightforward. He is charismatic, articulate and clever. He was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Senators on both sides of the aisle are keen to co-sponsor legislation with him. Liberal icon Tom Harkin, conservative hardliner Tom Coburn and veteran Republicans John McCain and Richard Lugar have all done so. He has more significant legislation to his name than either of his Senate rivals, or even 20-year veteran, John Kerry.
He is also lucky. His leading primary opponent in 2004 imploded over allegations of domestic abuse and then his Republican rival withdrew following sordid allegations in a messy divorce from the actress Jeri Ryan. Of course, those of us who do not believe in luck would note that he has never been tested in a serious campaign. If there is scandal in his background it has not come out. But be sure of this, his opponents in both parties are looking into this very carefully.
Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.