Barack Obama’s Moment is 2008

by Randy Shaw on November 20, 2006

In the summer of 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a choice. He could seize the opportunity presented by the recall election against California Governor Gray Davis, or wait to run in 2006. He chose to seize the political moment. Had Schwarzenegger waited until 2006, he would not have been elected California’s Governor as a non-incumbent Republican. Barack Obama faces a similar choice about seeking the presidency in 2008. If he does not run, and a Democrat is elected, Obama’s presidential hopes are frozen until 2016. Obama would no longer be the next new thing, and another Democrat would have emerged as the Party’s fresh face. But if Obama does run in 2008, he puts none of his career aspirations at risk, as even a poor campaign would not jeopardize his 2010 Senate re-election campaign or a presidential race in 2012 or 2016. Based on this calculus, the only reason Obama would not run in 2008 is if he does not want to be President.

Nancy Pelosi, Jim Webb, and Jack Murtha all played vital roles in shaping the political events of 2006, but the Democratic politician most on people’s minds this year was Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Obama brought an excitement to Democratic politics not often seen outside election campaigns, and announced on the Oprah show that he would consider running for President in 2008.

Should Obama run? It is hard to think why he should not.

Presidential politics is often about timing. Jack Kennedy was elected in 1960 despite being only 43 because after Eisenhower, Truman and Roosevelt, Americans were thrilled to see a young fresh face as President. Jimmy Carter could only have won the presidency after a huge scandal like Watergate, as his message was about ethics, not issues.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown entered the 1976 presidential primaries well after it was too late for him to prevail. History shows that even though he had only been Governor for two years, Brown missed his best chance for the presidency by not seizing the opportunity Watergate created for a new face to win the presidency that year. Brown ran for President in a hopeless effort to defeat an incumbent Democratic President in 1980, and then ran in 1992 when his political base was gone.

1976 was Jerry Brown’s chance, and he missed it.

Obama’s situation is somewhat akin to Brown’s. Should he not run when excitement about him is greatest, he loses what will likely prove his best opportunity.

In an era where major headlines can have a lifespan of but a few hours, Obama cannot assume people will still be flocking to bookstores to see him in 2016.

Obama would enter a 2008 presidential field with no clear Democratic frontrunner. Few believe Hilary Clinton has the popular base to win the nomination, and both she and likely candidate John Edwards originally backed the Iraq war (Edwards’ subsequent acknowledgement that he was wrong to support the war may not be sufficient for some anti-war voters).

Edwards has strongly backed workers struggles across America and would bring populist economic policies to the White House. But he did not excite voters on the campaign trail in 2004, and is not charismatic.

This leaves Al Gore, whose entry into the race is seen by some as tantamount to ensuring his nomination. Some are even suggesting a Gore-Obama ticket, with the idea that this would give the Illinois Senator the necessary foreign policy and government experience.

I have tried to get excited about a Gore presidential bid, but cannot. Yes, he took the principled and politically unsafe stance of opposing the Iraq war from the start. Yes, he has become America’s most prominent spokesperson on global warming. Yes, he does seem to be the “new” Al Gore who does not put his finger to the winds before making decisions but speaks and acts from the heart.

But Gore remains boring. Even many people who loved “An Inconvenient Truth” acknowledge that Gore’s professorial demeanor creates the impression that he talks down to people—a problem that hurt him in prior presidential campaigns.

A Gore presidential campaign may not strike voters as appearing to offer a new direction for America. His policies would chart a vastly different course, but the messenger is the same man that voters saw in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential campaigns.

We saw in both 2000 and 2004 how Republicans can effectively blur differences on key issues. We also saw how presidential candidates capable of explaining policy positions can turn off, rather than impress, American voters.

Today, Al Gore is likely to the political left of Barack Obama. But California voters showed with Schwarzenegger’s election in 2003 and his re-election in 2006 that they like star power and a candidate seemingly above ideology, and it is these attributes that Ronald Reagan, Jack Kennedy and now Barack Obama share.

If Obama ran in 2008, he would have already had more foreign policy experience than Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all had prior to entering the White House.

The only way we will know whether Barack Obama really has what it takes to win the presidency is if he mounts a serious primary campaign in 2008. His bookstore popularity may not translate into votes, in which case his campaign will end quickly, still leaving him a chance for the vice-presidential nomination.

Barack Obama is far from the ideal progressive candidate, and often criticizes fellow Democrats in the Clinton “triangulation” style. But the 2008 primaries will be a lot more exciting if he is running, and his candidacy would galvanize young people and many others toward getting involved in the political process.

At a time when Mark Warner and Russ Feingold have already dropped out of the 2008 race, it is not too soon for Obama to intensify his efforts to get in.

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