As the Skeptics Ask Why, Obama Asks Why Not?
WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 — There is always, it seems, a fresh new face breezing into a presidential race, offering himself as the person to change the tone, eliminate the vitriol and transform the old ways of politics.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is auditioning for that role in the 2008 campaign. He said so himself, leaping into the Democratic contest this week on a promise to “advance the cause of change and progress that we so desperately need.”
A long line of Democrats, Republicans and independents have gone before him, casting themselves as the sparkling candidate of the new politics only to find that their freshness withers well before the balloting begins. Think John Anderson, Gary Hart, Ross Perot.
How can Mr. Obama avoid a similar fate?
“Novelty alone is not a criteria for success, nor should it be,” he said in an interview on Wednesday as he walked through the hallways of the Senate. “I do think there are moments in American history where there are opportunities to change the language of politics or set the country’s sights in a different place, and I think we’re in one of those moments.”
Then, after pausing for a moment, he added: “Whether I’m the person to help move that forward or somebody else is, is not for me to determine.”
One day after opening his presidential exploratory committee, a procedural move that created an extraordinary tide of publicity, Mr. Obama returned to work in the Senate. It was the first reminder that even though he bills himself as a man intent on reforming Washington, he still has to report to his day job. In Washington.
And that point alone distinguished Mr. Obama from recent presidential hopefuls who presented themselves as not-from-Washington candidates. Four years ago, for example, Howard Dean returned to the governor’s office in Vermont after his initial foray into the race, and instantly began railing against his rivals stuck in the nation’s capital.
The biography and charisma of Mr. Obama, 45, have catapulted him into early prominence and set him apart from the parade of former presidential hopefuls like Mr. Dean, Mr. Perot, Jerry Brown and others who have challenged the status quo. But like them, he aspires to tap into a similar grass-roots following even as he gains endorsements from the party’s traditional kingmakers.
“There has been more smoke blown in his direction than anyone in his lifetime, but that’s not why he’s running,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, who has talked to Mr. Obama in recent weeks. “He’s not lost his reasons for doing this. He realizes that it’s his time.”
During his two years in the Senate, Mr. Obama has sought to build a reputation for occasionally stepping across party boundaries. And in his announcement on Tuesday, he did not so much as utter the word “Democrat,” perhaps signaling a desire to expand his appeal.
But Mr. Kerrey, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992, said he was not sure today’s political climate would afford candidates that much leeway, particularly in a cutthroat primary aimed at the Democratic Party’s most loyal base.
“The technique of applause lines are such that you are encouraged to say things that are a bit divisive,” said Mr. Kerrey, who is not yet aligned with any of the candidates. “If it’s a Democratic audience, they aren’t going to give you a round of applause if you say the Republicans are pretty good people.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama intends to frame his candidacy around a story from long ago. By formally declaring his candidacy on Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s home, Mr. Obama will strive to make the point that America’s 16th president did not have much government experience either, but led the nation through one of its most trying times.
“Just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right,” Mr. Obama said in an interview. “And just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Still, an early test of his candidacy could come as candidates try to distinguish themselves and emerge from a field of up to 10 contenders during a series of presidential debates that are scheduled to begin by April. That is when an appealing biography gives way to questions about whether a candidate is actually prepared to govern.
Who, after all, could forget the moment in the 1984 primary when Walter Mondale ridiculed the candidacy of his rival, Mr. Hart, a Colorado senator who was running as an outsider on a message of hope, pragmatism and youth.
In a televised debate, Mr. Mondale declared, “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ”