Obama for President?

Smart, eloquent, handsome, and clean.
We could do worse. We probably will.

A reader points out that my list of potential Democratic Presidential candidates with low negatives omitted Barack Obama. That was a mistake.

He is obviously capable of great eloquence, as his address to the 2004 Convention demostrated. His Emily’s List speech seems to have been another stemwinder, including the beautiful line:

When George Bush said he did not believe in nation building, I did not know he was talking about this nation.

[Can’t find the full text on line. Does anyone have it?]

On some dimensions, of course, an Obama candidacy seems like a far fetch:

1. With only four years in the Senate behind him plus a couple of terms in the Illinois Senate, he’d have the thinnest record in public office of any Presidential candidate (bar GWB) since that other lawyer from Illinois.

2. He has exactly zero experience related to foreign policy.

3. Rush Limbaugh will inevitably refer to him as “Osama.”

4. He’s black. Not only will that cost votes, but polling won’t tell us how many votes it will cost. Black candidates in mostly-white constituencies tend to poll several points ahead of the real results.

Against that, he’s young, smart, good-looking, eloquent, funny, and squeaky-clean. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. Four years in the Senate isn’t long enough to build much of a record of accomplishment, but it’s also not long enough to build a record of votes that are easy to distort. And my impression is that he’d be a much better counter-puncher than Gore or Kerry were.

Substantively, he’s pretty damned liberal: his stances are much closer to mine than I would ordinarily think healthy for a Presidential candidate. But despite &#8212 or perhaps even due to &#8212 his race, he comes across as much less culturally threatening to Red America than his issue stances might suggest.

Aside from whatever votes his name and skin color would cost, Obama may be the closest thing to “generic Democrat” we could put on the ticket.

There remains the question of how good a President he’d be. Our experience with Jimmy Carter and the Republicans’ experience with GWB should remind us that, even on a purely cynical partisan basis, electing a turkey isn’t a good long-term strategy.

From this perspective, the scariest thing about Obama’s record is that he’s never run anything. That makes it next to impossible to guess whether he could figure out, on the fly and under enormous pressure, how to run the government.

Obama’s sheer smarts &#8212 he seems to have an IQ in the Clinton range &#8212 don’t provide much of a guarantee. People who are used to being smarter than everyone else are sometimes hard of listening, which is a bad thing in any President. Carter, Clinton, and Nixon all would would have been more successful Presidents had they been willing, as Kennedy, Reagan, and GWB were willing, to listen to people who knew more about Presidenting than they did.

But if Obama’s self-deprecating wit indicates someone who has his ego well under control, that would help a lot. On balance, I don’t see the expected-value quality of an Obama Administration as any lower than that of a Clark or Warner or Edwards Administration. We know more about Kerry and Gore and Biden, but what we know about them doesn’t reassure me at all.

An Obama candidacy still looks like a long shot. He isn’t rich, hasn’t raised tons of money, and hasn’t eaten enough rubber chicken to have built up a huge favor bank. And I’m not at all cheerful about the prospect of having lots of candidates in the race to split up the anti-Hillary vote. If Hillary and Gore both go for it, I’m not sure there will be enough oxygen in the room for anyone else. Even if Gore stays out, if the race sets up as Hillary and the Seven Dwarfs she can probably slide through. What those of us who fear a Hillary nomination and a Hillary Presidency have to hope for is that the race shakes down quickly to Hillary v. X.

But X = Obama seems to me like an excellent solution to that equation.

As Speaker Reed said when asked whether the Republicans would nominate him for President in 1896:

“They could do worse.

They probably will.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “Obama for President?”

  1. Not only would Limbaugh refer to him as Osama, but in this very post effusively recommending him, you refer to him as Osama.
    Unfortunately he didn't change his name to O'Connor ten years ago.

  2. > GWB were willing
    ??? Who exactly is George W. Bush willing to listen to? If he listens to anyone, it is Cheney – but if he is listening to Cheney, then Cheney is in fact running the show as has long been thought. I see absolutely zero evidence that Bush listens to anyone else; the fiasco at the Treasury should be example enough.
    On Obama: let him be elected and RE-elected Governor of Illinois. He can run for President after he has accomplished something solid and been re-elected. Right now all he is is a good speechmaker running against a pathetically weak Illinois Republican party. Yes, some downstaters I know did vote for Obama even though he is black (and they would normally never do that), but it was primarily women who were utterly fed up with being betrayed by the Republicans. I doubt very much they would do the same in a Presidential election.
    Cranky

  3. "But X = Osama"
    Let's not be quite so eager to do Limbaugh's work for him, eh?

  4. Cryptic Ned:
    Ooooops! Fixed now.
    Cranky:
    I agree: if there were two Obamas available, one of whom had served two terms as Governor of Illinois (and stayed out of jail), I'd be for him in preference to the other one. But as Rumsfeld would no doubt say, you don't run a campaign with the candidates you'd like to have; you run it with the candidates you hve. Among the candidates we have, Obama looks pretty good to me.

  5. I completely disagree about the effect of Obama being black, which I think would actually benefit him. Why? I think that most people in this country, including (perhaps especially) racists, are anxious to prove that they're not racist. Of course, to many people, almost any actual African American who happens along turns out to be unacceptable for some reason or other. (But not racism!, everyone is quick to point out.)
    But every so often, a black candidate who is just amazingly good happens along; and then this candidate gets the benefit not only of his or her own talents, but also of the fact that there are people who need to prove to themselves that they would, really they would, support a black candidate if only a decent one came along. He gives them an opportunity to justify themselves to themselves, and to prove that they aren't racist after all.
    Obviously, candidates like this are as rare as fiancees who are like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. But I think Obama is one of them, as Colin Powell might have been. And thus I think he'd benefit.

  6. Mark,
    I understand your point, but I don't think the Nation can survive another inexperienced, untested President (certainly the Democratic Party can't). Senators with no governing (or real business) experience just don't seem to be able to hack it. At least not to me.
    Cranky

  7. As much as I would like to believe Hilzoy, I think his comment is a better explanation of why such candidates poll slightly better than they actually run. Unfortunately, in the voting booth, those to whom such voters might not desire to appear as racist are beyond consideration.

  8. I think the racist factor could be cancelled out by energizing the minority turnout. And maybe if people are really confronted by the fact that they'd be racist enough not to vote for someone for president because he's black, maybe there would be a little self-reflection.

  9. On the one hand, Obama would turn off the racists. On the other hand, I think that's a tiny minority of Dems, offset by a hugely energized Afican American and progressive vote.
    I think his real place is as a VP. My pick would be Gore/Obama. But I'll take Clark/Obama, Feingold/Obama, Warner/Obama, even Edwards/Obama. I think Clinton needs a different balance, probably someone like Clark for manly military cred. But I have no faith in her at the top of the ticket, so I depaiir of trying to figure that one out.

  10. Blake, try tinyurl.com.
    gbh, hilzoy's a woman.
    My guess is that Obama's skin color would be a slight negative – he'd be harder in some ways for the Republicans and Adam Nagourneys to smear, but surely a sizeable number of Americans would just be uncomfortable voting for a black person. Note that Obama's not conventionally African-American (Bobby Rush said he "wasn't black enough"), which should I think reduce the latter effect.
    Btw, doesn't Obama have some experience running a community organization? Maybe it wouldn't be a big political selling point, but it probably counts as preparation.

  11. > On the one hand, Obama would turn off
    > the racists.
    I think most politically-aware commentators and spectators (particularly inside the Beltway, but in flyover country as well) vastly misunderestimate both the amount of racism that remains in this country, and the facility that those who hold those views deep down have developed in hiding their racism in front of strangers. Once the voting booth curtain is closed though I am fairly certain they would go with the inner voice.
    Cranky

  12. If Cranky Observer is right, then there would be a big disconnect between the polls (and the exit polls) and the Diebold etc. results. I wonder if that would force the country to discuss race and voting integrity issues.

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