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Barack Obama's Challenge

This column was written by John Nichols.

With his decision to file the necessary paperwork to launch a presidential campaign exploratory committee, Barack Obama puts an end to speculation about whether he really is interested in being the Democratic nominee in 2008.

The exploratory committee is political performance art. Obama's not exploring anything. He's preparing a candidacy that, if all goes as planned, will be launched officially on Feb. 10 in Chicago.

So Obama is running.

Now, the question is: How far will he get?

To a much greater extent than the other announced and prospective candidates for the party's nomination, that depends on the immediate response of grassroots Democrats to his prospective candidacy.

There is no question that Obama is a political superstar. That allows him to leap over many of the hurdles that are erected by the overseers of the American political process.

Obama does not need to build name recognition, in the sense that more senior figures such as Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack must. Even before he delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the Chicagoan was the most prominent state senator in the nation.

After Obama delivered that address to the approval of the delegates — and to generous reviews from most of the political and media class — he secured his Senate seat and arrived in Washington accompanied by some of the highest expectations ever attached to a new member of Congress.

Predictably, Obama failed to meet those inflated expectations. His relative caution on the big-picture issues of Iraq and domestic civil liberties, combined with some disappointing votes on consumer and economic issues, disappointed many of the serious activists who had been most enthusiastic about his appearance on the national political scene.

As candidates began to position themselves for the 2008 presidential race, however, Obama began to look more and more attractive.

On the list of possible candidates, he was, with New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, one of three genuine first-tier figures — high-profile politicians with what a man who skipped the 2008 race, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, describes as the "star power" to draw media attention merely by opening their mouths, assemble a crowd anywhere in the country and, presumably, to rapidly raise the money needed to remain viable throughout the caucus and primary process that will identify the nominee.

As Obama made the rounds of state party conventions, fundraising events and rallies during the 2006 Congressional election season, grassroots Democrats remembered his inspired speaking in Boston, rather than his uninspired votes in Washington. And they gave him a welcome that most politicians can only dream of.

The message from the party base was clear: Clinton had not closed the deal. There was an opening for another first-tier contender in the Democratic race, and Obama could take it.

Instantaneously, Obama was a contender and thus began the process that culminated with Tuesday's announcement of the exploratory committee.

Did Obama hit the trail for Democratic Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in the fall of 2006 with a plan to propel himself into the 2008 competition? Perhaps. He is, by his own admission, ambitious. But most of the evidence suggests that he was taken aback by the intensity of the response he got.

Obama has stepped back to consider his options, and he was smart enough to recognize that the opportunity was real and that it might not come again.

So, now, he has stepped up, and in.

By establishing the exploratory committee, he will be able to raise money to hire staff and build a basic campaign infrastructure in advance of the expected formal announcement in February. He'll need it. Clinton and another contender, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, are far ahead of Obama when it comes to putting together the multi-state campaign apparatus that is needed in a fast-paced presidential campaign.

Can Obama catch up? Yes, but only if the grassroots Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about the prospect of his candidacy now turn that enthusiasm into practical commitments in states such as Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held a year from this week, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That transition will have something to do with Obama's star power, of course, but it will have much more to do with how he defines himself.

Democrats like Barack Obama. But they don't necessarily know what it is about him that appeals to them.

Obama's challenge is to quickly provide grassroots Democrats with a rationale for his candidacy. There will be a lot of discussion about how he must compete with Clinton, but that's not the challenge. If she runs, Clinton will do so as what she is: a cautious centrist with lots of money and prominent support but with dubious grassroots appeal.

Obama's real challenge will be to make sure that he compares favorably with Edwards. The 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president has done a reasonably good job of identifying himself as the Democrat who wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and address fundamental issues of economic and social injustice at home.

And he has spent a lot of time talking about those issues with the party faithful in the states where Democratic activists and voters will make or break Democratic candidates. Already, Edwards is beginning to attract the endorsements — particularly from labor union leaders and members — and the volunteer base that he needs in states such as Iowa and Nevada.

Obama will have to move quickly, and seriously, if he wants to block not just Clinton but Edwards. That is the only way for him to transform his star power into the practical support base for a winning candidacy.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation

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