Friday, August 17, 2007

"To Warren Buffett, Obama and Clinton Are Both Presidential"

NY Times:
OMAHA — In the Warren Buffett primary, there is nothing but neutrality when it comes to divining who he believes would make the better Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama.

So it was left to our imagination here the other night inside the Ironwood Country Club, with Mr. Buffett standing at the front of the room, when the first question rang out from the crowd of Democrats who were gathering for a fund-raiser for Mr. Obama.

“Why you and not Mrs. Clinton?” a man standing near the side of the room asked.

“Boy,” Mr. Obama replied with a grin, “you really get to the point.”
Mr. Buffett, the wise sage of money and finance, had a far broader smile on his face. He, of course, doesn’t have to answer the question. He has contributed to both candidates, held fund-raisers for both candidates and offered advice to both candidates.

And in the Clinton-Obama contest, he has no intention of taking sides until the race is over. While the billionaire investor knows a growth stock when he sees one, he is also prone to invest in the traditional product. Even more, he knows better than to get entangled in a political brawl.

He folded his arms and listened intently as Mr. Obama began answering the question.

“I think people recognize that this may be one of those watershed elections,” Mr. Obama said. “I think very highly of Senator Clinton. I think she’s smart. I think she’s tough. I think she’s capable — I think she would be a capable president.”

Then, of course, came his transition. In recent elections, Mr. Obama said, Democrats have employed a strategy of the “50 plus 1 model,” hoping to eke out a slim victory. He argued that his candidacy could change that.

“Part of the promise of this campaign is to change the electoral map in two ways,” Mr. Obama said, “by drawing in new people in the process and by getting young people excited in this campaign.”

As he continued to answer the question — elaborating for several minutes — Mr. Buffett applauded when the crowd of nearly 200 did and never lost his smile. (His praise was similar, though, a few months ago in New York when he hosted a fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton.)

“One last way of saying this, the day I’m inaugurated, I think the country looks at itself differently and the world looks at America differently,” Mr. Obama said. “It creates a sense of new possibilities where we can actually build a working majority, and that’s what’s going to be necessary for the big, bold initiatives that everybody is talking about.”

A few minutes later, another question came from a woman in the front of the room. Many people she meets, she said, are fond of Mr. Obama, but are not certain he has the experience. “I don’t know how to respond,” she said.

“Let me give you a tutorial,” Mr. Obama replied, launching into a recitation of how he hopes to persuade voters that his judgment, not the specific number of years he has served in Washington, is the critical element of a winning presidential candidate.

For nearly an hour, Mr. Buffett, 76, stood and listened to Mr. Obama. When the question-and-answer session concluded, Mr. Buffett adjourned to a side room to sit down, taking a rest after standing so long. He has been impressed by Mr. Obama since meeting him in 2004. Long before Mr. Buffett, or even Mr. Obama, for that matter, knew he was running for president, Mr. Buffett explained his feelings about the Illinois senator.

“I’ve got a conviction about him that I don’t get very often," Mr. Buffett told me in 2005. “He has as much potential as anyone I’ve seen to have an important impact over his lifetime on the course that America takes.”

It would, of course, be possible to parse that quotation, particularly the three words “over his lifetime,” echoing a sentiment voiced by many Democrats who believe Mr. Obama will have further opportunities should this campaign not work out.

But Mr. Buffett is doing no such parsing. His actions have shown that he intends to offer the same level of assistance, financial and otherwise, to both candidates.

Not everyone gathered inside the country club, of course, felt the obligation to be neutral.

Steve Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said that while he cannot formally endorse any of the candidates in the wide field, he said he was struck by Mr. Obama’s desire to expand the electoral map and broaden the party’s reach.

“Hillary Clinton is a wonderful candidate and a wonderful woman, but if she runs, she will really hurt our local races out here,” Mr. Achelpohl told me. “She will bring every crazy Republican out of the woodwork.” Mr. Achelpohl added: “He’s the future of the Democratic Party in the country. That sounds pretty sweeping, but it’s the truth. He represents an instrument of change that we’ve been missing in recent years.”

In five months, we will know if the voters of Iowa, located just across the Missouri River from here, agree or disagree. They, after all, will help make Mr. Buffett’s decision for him. He cannot vote until Feb. 9, when the Nebraska Democrats hold their contest and the race is likely to be already decided.

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