I know: you're sick of politics. That's because we're a week away from the midterm elections, and all you seem to be seeing are nasty TV ads. And if you're going to vote (and please do), chances are you're casting your ballot as a way to register your disgust. You probably want to record your feelings against something-whether it's the war, the president, a Democratic congressional takeover. Most of you think Congress is corrupt, you worry that the situation in Iraq is getting worse, not better, and you don't like the direction in which the country is heading. No wonder you're cranky.
We're all cranky. Which is why, when someone like Barack Obama writes a book called The Audacity of Hope, we perk right up. As cynical as we've all become, we still like the sound of his call for a new kind of politics-rooted in faith, inclusiveness, and bipartisanship. When Obama allowed that he just might be considering a presidential run, some positively jumped for joy: A young (45) African-American with no political baggage, the first-term Democrat from Illinois is full of optimism. He may even be authentic. "A vessel for people's hopes," is how Chicago political consultant and Obama friend David Axelrod puts it. "Someone who can bring some wisdom to the table."
Obama has a great story to tell: half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, born in Hawaii, Harvard law school grad, first black president of the law review, state senator, U.S. senator. Charming, self-effacing, a family man. And as far as Democrats are concerned, he's two more things: first, someone who took an early stand against the Iraq war (unlike, say, John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton). And second, he's not Clinton. "He's not the vehicle for a stop-anybody movement," says Axelrod. "If he runs, it won't be because he's an alternative to anybody."
That may be true-in his own mind. But in the case of just about everyone else, Obama is an alternative — not only to the lightning rod that is Hillary Clinton but also to a generation of boomers who may need to finally cede the stage. In his new book, Obama-born in 1961, which makes him a very late boomer — writes that in watching the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton saga play out a decade ago he felt as if he were watching a couple of old generals fight the last war. "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation-a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage." He's right — and he's also right to point out that the fights continued right up through the last election, and even into this one. So Obama, his friend Axelrod says, will be able to relate to those younger voters and bring them into the Democratic fold.
Wishy-washy? Maybe, but there's a flip side to Obama's youth: his inexperience. Sure, you say, there's an easy way to handle that problem. After all, the folks with experience are the ones who messed up Iraq. But maybe it wasn't their experience; they could just have been the wrong people. (Paging Donald Rumsfeld.) In a post-9/11 world, it's hard to see how we elect someone without the important national security cred: If terrorism remains the big issue it is now, inexperience won't cut it with the soccer moms. There's no giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, not now. George W. Bush may have chosen-and stuck with-the wrong team. Trouble is, he was too green to understand when they were wrong.
The reasons for Obama's popular appeal may well be his political flaw: He's reasonable. He looks for solutions. There is no enemies list. All good. Yet, his penchant for wishy-washy is well documented. He splits hairs, is noncommittal and overly judicial. It's gotten him in hot water with Sen. John McCain, who could face off with Obama in 2008. No one would accuse McCain of equivocating on anything: When Obama backed out of a bipartisan, McCain-led group o lobbying reform — to run the Democratic version — McCain exploded. In writing, which almost never happens in the clubby Senate, the Arizonan blasted Obama for his "disingenuousness" and "self-interested partisan posturing."
Obama was stunned and responded by explaining that since McCain has been in Washington for 20 years, he has a right to be cranky. Clever. "One of those NBA moments," says Axelrod. Maybe. But he's going to have to be more than clever if he wants to live up to all of the hype and expectations. And there are plenty of both.
By Gloria Borger