Make no mistake: He's running

All but launching a presidential run, Barack Obama has added serious star power to the 2008 race -- and made history.

By Walter Shapiro
Published January 17, 2007 1:36PM (EST)

Whatever happens during the demolition derby that will be the 2008 presidential race, the newly released three-minute video featuring a would-be candidate with a long face, dressed in an open-neck blue shirt and dark jacket, will endure as a political artifact.

While the timing of the announcement came days earlier than political insiders expected, nothing that Barack Obama said was particularly striking as he announced on his political Web site that he was formally launching an exploratory committee for a presidential run. For decades White House aspirants have attacked the political climate of Washington much as Obama did: "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions."

What is history-making is the life story of the handsome 45-year-old man facing the camera. Little more than two years removed from the Illinois state Senate, Obama -- the Hawaii-born and Ivy League-educated son of a Kenyan economist -- is the first African-American ever to embark on a serious quest for the White House. Unlike Colin Powell, who bobbed near the top of the polls in 1995 before bowing out of the Republican presidential race, Obama has the confidence to act on his ambitions rather than becoming sidelined by indecisiveness. Unlike Jesse Jackson with his epochal primary and caucus victories in the 1980s, Obama is not a protest candidate dissed and dismissed by party insiders, but a mainstream contender with a plausible route to the nomination and the White House.

It was not supposed to happen for Obama this year, despite his dazzling keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention. The real 2008 buzz began in mid-September when Obama was the headliner at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry, the biggest event on this year's Iowa Democratic calendar. Harkin was not trying to create a presidential boomlet, so much as to maintain his own neutrality in a 2008 field that included Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Then, last month, Obama set an unofficial statewide pre-primary record when 1,600 New Hampshire Democrats paid $25 each to hear him speak at a post-election-party victory rally. Rarely has a fledgling presidential candidate entered the fray propelled by such stirring auditions in the first caucus and primary states.

Make no mistake, Obama's online announcement Tuesday was an unabashed declaration of candidacy. Technically, he promised a Hillary-style "listening and learning" tour and vowed that "on Feb. 10, at the end of these decisions and in my home state of Illinois, I'll share my plans with my friends, neighbors and fellow Americans."

What necessitates this delay is not a last flicker of uncertainty, but logistics. David Plouffe (a strategist for Dick Gephardt in 2004), who is expected to run the campaign, and media advisor David Axelrod (who worked for John Edwards in 2004 and the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon in his 1988 White House bid) have prior experience in presidential races. But the Obama campaign, with virtually no money in the bank, is still more a beguiling idea than a tangible operation. But unless the polls, the crowds, the book sales and the public enthusiasm are all a mirage, money will not be a problem for Obama, who has the potential to raise $50 million or more. Meanwhile, orchestrating every detail of Obama's Feb. 10 presidential kickoff -- so that it will look natural and spontaneous -- will require the nearly four weeks of planning.

The obvious comparisons will be made between Obama and John Kennedy, 43 when elected, and Bill Clinton, who was 46. But JFK -- for all his dilatory ways and playboy dalliances -- spent 14 years in Congress before he ran in 1960. Bill Clinton waited a similar 14 years before he embarked on his 1992 bid for the presidency. But Obama, first elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1996, normally would personify a young man in a hurry.

Democratic insider Steve Elmendorf, who worked for Gephardt in 2004 before becoming deputy campaign manager for John Kerry, knows something about presidential candidates with lengthy Capitol Hill résumés. "What Obama's people tell me," Elmendorf said, "is that he was constantly asking, 'What would spending four more years in the United States Senate do to make me a better candidate?'" And as Elmendorf put it, "Maybe he is right. Maybe four more years in the Senate would just make Obama more senatorial."

What is strange about the 2008 Democratic field is that voters will be offered a stark choice between star power (Obama, Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Edwards) and long-shot candidates with traditional political résumés. Both Joe Biden (who announces he is running every time he appears on television) and Chris Dodd (who declared on the "Imus in the Morning" radio show last week) have spent more than three decades in Congress. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (who is expected to join the race) was first elected to Congress in 1982 and later served in the Clinton cabinet as secretary of energy and as U.N. ambassador.

"The bar that Obama has to overcome is that two and a half years ago he was a back-bencher in Springfield, Ill.," said a senior advisor for one of Obama's more seasoned Democratic rivals. "He has to convince voters that his youth and inexperience are virtues not deficits." Anita Dunn, who had been advising Evan Bayh on his recently abandoned presidential bid, made an analogous point about Obama in far more charitable fashion. "He has to show people, not tell people, that he's ready for this," Dunn said. "And he has the talent and the commitment to do it."

Iraq, currently the single-minded preoccupation of Democratic voters, is what complicates the experience question. Obama had the instincts to oppose the run-up to war as a state legislator, even though he had never benefited from a single top-secret governmental briefing. Sens. Clinton, Edwards, Biden, Dodd and Kerry -- whatever their top-secret inner reservations -- all voted to grant the president the power to invade Iraq.

Obama, for all his personal appeal, is not yet a polished presidential candidate. He was unimpressive answering questions on Iraq from Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" last Sunday, beginning one answer about whether Congress could block the increase in troop levels with this mouthful of Senate-speak: "Funding is going to come through the supplementals, Bob, and the president hasn't yet presented that." There is also a vagueness in Obama's rhetoric once he tries to move from the inspirational (at which he excels) to the programmatic (still a work in progress).

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Obama's decision to seek to become the 44th president is that virtually all of the initial reservations about his candidacy are premised on this question of experience. Who ever imagined, during the long terrible history of American race relations, that when the first black candidate made a serious bid for the presidency, the color of his skin would be regarded as close to an irrelevancy.


Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections