On his recent swing through New Hampshire, Barack Obama drew rapturous crowds. But many pundits continue to assume that he'll be just a flash in the pan, sharing the fate of Howard Dean, the one-time Democratic hottie who flamed out before the campaign season ended.Sure, say his detractors, Obama is a symbol of hope to Americans desperate for politics that transcend barriers of race, class and ethnicity. But charisma isn't everything -- it can't make up for lack of experience. Obama has never been "tested.'' Can he withstand the rigors of the campaign trail? When the ads go negative (start looking now for sly insinuations that a man named Barack Hussein Obama can't be trusted!), will he fall apart? Can he handle the challenges of leading the world's last limping superpower through an era fraught with conflict and danger?
But Obama is nowhere near as unseasoned as his detractors suggest.
A political campaign isn't the only kind of test, and Obama's no stranger to the sort of criticism or hostility he'll face if he runs for president. With his racially mixed background (his father was from Kenya; his mother was a white American), his international upbringing (he spent part of his youth in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii, where he was born), and his penchant for work among the downtrodden and disaffected, Obama has spent his life struggling against those eager to discredit or exclude him. He's already faced tests of character and endurance. They were different in scale from those he'll face if he runs for president, but not different in kind.
In his years as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama had to unite disparate and mutually suspicious communities, and he eked out small victories over politics-as-usual, finding out the hard way that lasting change isn't easy.
Later, in the Illinois state legislature (not known as a nurturing environment for new-minted politicians), Obama earned a reputation as a guy who could get things done. The conservative Chicago Tribune endorsed Obama in his 2004 Senate run, praising his "significant accomplishments'' and "shrewd negotiation.'' The Tribune credited Obama with "legislative feats,'' including laws requiring that police videotape interrogations in murder cases, laws creating tax credits for the working poor, and "laws to track racial profiling by law enforcement, prohibit public officials from accepting lobbyists' gifts (and) expand health insurance coverage for children of the working poor and their families.''
Obama bashers now complain that his two years in the U.S. Senate largely have been devoid of shock and awe. That's not a bad thing. Obama wisely hasn't tried to hog the limelight; instead, he's focused on issues that are unsexy but important.
He forged a sturdy partnership with Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, for instance, and the two successfully sponsored legislation that steps up U.S. support for global programs designed to secure or destroy stocks of conventional weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, small arms and abandoned ordnance. (Hand-wringing about WMD is de rigueur in Washington, but most politicians forget that it's conventional weapons that kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, allow terrorists to shoot down aircraft and fuel the bloody conflicts that have killed so many civilians from Darfur to Colombia.) On a dozen equally unglamorous issues, from global warming to our decaying public health system, Obama has shown a similar steady commitment.
In any case, experience, like charisma, can be overrated. A good president doesn't have to know everything about everything. (If he doesn't know anything about anything, of course, that's no good. We're still trapped in an unhappy national experiment with a guy in that category.) Good presidents strike a balance: They learn all they can, then appoint smart, thoughtful aides, people who can fill in the gaps in their own knowledge and serve as honest brokers. At the end of the day, good presidents need the judgment and common sense necessary to make tough decisions. But to get there, they need to know how to listen and how to nurture, rather than crush, dissenting voices.
In his two years in the Senate, Obama has already earned a reputation for doing just that. Like every good leader, he knows what he doesn't know -- and reaches out to those who do, whatever their party affiliation. He's worked with Republican senators on Darfur and Congo, consulted military leaders, and sought out foreign policy veterans.
And many of the experienced Washington hands who've seen Obama in action are as impressed as the New Hampshirites who attended his book signings.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, who's been consulted by any number of prospective candidates over the last few years, was blunt: "I've been around long enough not to waste my time trying to talk to politicians who just aren't educable. Obama's different. He has judgment and intelligence, but he knows how to listen and take on insights from other people too.''
So why not Obama?
Contrary to what his detractors suggest, he can offer prose as well as poetry, and this country desperately needs both.
In the end, when it comes to the question of his relative inexperience, Obama himself offers the best retort: "Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have an awful lot of experience."
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Georgetown University Law Center professor Rosa Brooks: