Obama’s dilemma

Running for president is always going to be a dicey proposition, and all of the politicians thought to be major contenders — Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney — face major problems. But in my view, none has problems as formidable as the ones that confront Barack Obama. According to Donald Lambro of the Washington Times (whose web site isn’t working at the moment), Democratic party strategists are saying (correctly, I think) that to win the Democratic nomination Obama will have to position himself clearly to the left of Hillary Clinton on Iraq and on economic issues, such as trade, where she takes “establishment” positions.
But by doing so, Obama would lose most of that what differentiates him from garden variety leftists (say, Howard Dean or Russ Feingold). It is Obama’s image as an eclectic (his self-description) candidate with substantial crossover appeal that makes him seem so attractive to many. The image has no basis in reality — Obama is a pure left-liberal Democrat, and the next eclectic or moderate substantive position he takes is likely to be his first. But image can be nearly everything, and as long as he can cling to his present image, Obama has the potential to be formidable. Even with cheerleaders like Tim Russert, though, Obama can’t maintain his current image while fighting to stay well left of Hillary Clinton, who undoubtedly will lurch leftward herself if it looks like she needs to. In sum, for Obama to get past Clinton he’ll have to reveal himself as a less seasoned version of Dean or Feingold. As such, it’s difficult to imagine him winning the general election in these times.
The counter-argument is that by 2008 Americans will be so sick of the war in Iraq that being an early and strident opponent of our presence there will not seem extreme. This scenario can’t be dismissed entirely, but things will have to move pretty drastically for it to kick in. Ned Lamont, whose adviser David Sirota is urging Obama to take Clinton on from the left, could only capture 40 percent of the vote in liberal Connecticut running as an anti-war Democrat. The success of Joe Lieberman and the popularity of John McCain suggest that what some take to be a straightforward anti-war vote is really more of an anti-Bush vote driven by anger at the president for starting the war. Recall that Richard Nixon won in 1968 without being against the war in Vietnam and was re-elected in 1972 by a landslide after prosecuting that war for four years. Folks hated the war, but they knew Nixon hadn’t gotten us into it. They also hated the idea of defeat, and saw the need for a serious and seasoned leader in troubled times.
Obama will not seem like that leader in 2008, and he will compound that problem if (as he probably must) he tacks decisively to the left.
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