(CHICAGO) - Say what you will about Barack Obama. That he is a gifted and inspiring speaker. A well-educated and thoughtful man. A man with lots of devoted friends and who inspired millions of complete strangers to participate in the American democratic system.
He is a dogged, highly competitive campaigner, disciplined to a fault, suspicious of the news media and relentless in his pursuit of the presidency. A man with a healthy ego that is smart enough not to show it. Obama is all of these things.
But I have learned something about him in a year of following in his footsteps across the country and back. It is a quality that every politician covets. Jimmy Carter had none of it. Ronald Reagan had it in abundance.
It's luck. Obama is a very lucky politician.
First and foremost, if you want to run for president it helps to come to the fore after a hugely unpopular incumbent from the opposite party. Running to sweep out the ruins of a failed presidency is not a bad way to get yourself started. Fair or not, George W. Bush and the words incompetent seem to find seats right next to each other in the same sentence.
Tragic too, as the gravestones at Arlington and across the country, Iraq and Afghanistan attest. The drive to rid of all that was palpable as Obama shook hand after hand, and fastened on a campaign distilled to one word: change.
Second, Obama's biography. The son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father was a compelling tale. His rise to the stage brought him onto it at a time when many Americans were more than willing to elect the first African-American president. They were eager. You could see it in their faces at the many rallies and ropelines. The women bursting into tears at his touch. The man staring intently into his eyes as they offered their hands.
The country had been waiting for someone like him to right the wrongs of history with one mighty blow. For college students born long after the civil rights struggles, there was a sense that it was time for America to get on with exemplifying the principles they were taught. For their parents, Obama's election would be a posthumous gift to Martin Luther King. Obama was, after all, King's dream come to life.
Third, Obama was perceived correctly by the news media as a great story. And the coverage he received, while far from being "in the tank" as critics alleged, was nonetheless befitting a momentous historic event. Whether you liked his politics or not, he was living breathing history. He made it easy for us. His poetry swamped the prose of his opponents. Go back and read his sentences today and you will see they lack a certain substance. But it was the way he said things that helped draw people in.
His positions shifted on such things as federal matching funds. We reported it. People digested it and were unruffled. Someone else who raised two-thirds of a billion dollars might be accused of trying to buy the election, but the accusation did not stick to him any more than the rants of Jeremiah Wright, his association with former terrorist William Ayers, or his dealings with convicted swindler Tony Rezko.
His speeches were uplifting, his crowds were huge. He was simply a great story – on television or in the newspaper.
Fourth, he was blessed with opponents who were no match for him. Hillary Clinton underestimated his skills and overestimated hers. John McCain made a Faustian bargain with the base. And he undid a lifetime of principled politics with his selection of a running mate clearly unqualified. McCain solidified the Republican diehards who think Bush is a successful president, but lost so much by doing it. Nor was McCain any match for Obama in the debates. McCain HOT. Obama COOL. Consistently so.
For all that, McCain still had a shot – until the second week of September and the fifth element in Obama's streak of luck kicked in: the economic meltdown. Historians will note McCain's repeated insistence in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence that the economy's fundamentals were "strong." But no greater gift could have come Obama's way. The financial implosion happened just as Obama was being forced onto the defensive, egged on by supporters to "take the gloves off." Ultimately, he never really had to. The economy's woes and McCain's tone deaf response provided all the lift he needed at precisely the time he needed it. And it allowed him to show himself to the country as cool and collected in the face of a mounting crisis. A contrast with the herky-jerky McCain strategy that was plain for all to see.
The first week of November usually is chilly in Chicago, not conducive to outdoor, nighttime rallies. But Election Day was in the high 60s, a perfect autumn evening set the stage. If there was any more evidence needed of his incredible luck, the meteorological gods provided it.