Other Candidates Have Come As Far

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., acknowledges his supporters at his Pennsylvania primary night rally Tuesday, April 22, 2008, in Evansville, Ind.
This column was written by Dean Barnett

During Fox News' Coverage of last night's Pennsylvania primary, the Keystone State's favorite son and prominent Barack Obama supporter Senator Bob Casey Jr. made an appearance. Like many Obama supporters, Casey didn't shy away from hyperbole when discussing his candidate. Referring to Obama, Casey flatly stated, "No candidate's ever come so far."

Perhaps, if one were inclined to be charitable to Casey, one could forgive his apparent forgetfulness regarding Abraham Lincoln, who merely emerged from a log cabin to save the Union. By any objective measure, Lincoln at the very least "came as far" as Obama.

But you don't have to look back to relatively ancient American history to find candidates who have come as far as Obama. Obama's journey is remarkable, but it's not particularly anomalous. Obama grew up in a middle class household and attended his state's most exclusive boarding school. Those facts don't diminish how far he has come -- anyone who comes as close to the presidency as Obama now is has by definition "come far."

But in recent history, other leaders came farther. Bill Clinton, like Obama, grew up in a non-traditional household. Additionally, Clinton had to deal with poverty and an abusive step-father. Ronald Reagan grew up in grinding poverty and without the advantage of a world class education from the time he was out of short pants. In other words, every president of the last generation not named Bush has "come so far" as Barack Obama.

Admittedly, no one has yet accused Bob Casey of being the shrewdest or most thoughtful member of the Senate. But his tiny piece of hyperbole fits in well with the kind of stuff Obama supporters typically sling. In their telling, Obama is something brand new, and the inability of the as-yet-unconverted to acknowledge Obama's uniqueness speaks poorly of them.

Chances are, this enthusiasm engenders a fair amount of hostility from people who have yet to accept Obama as their political savior. Given the fact that late deciding voters in Pennsylvania broke for Hillary Clinton in a big way, there's the distinct possibility that this consistent strain of rhetoric isn't just turning off people who oppose Obama, but also undecided voters.

But there's still a bigger problem with the Obama supporters who have placed him on a pedestal as something completely new. As we near the end of the primary season, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Barack Obama is merely a politician, a fellow who chases votes for a living. And there's nothing new about that.

Several months ago, I dusted off my rolodex from the 1990's and began calling people who had attended law school with Barack Obama. (Because of my prior profession, I had made the acquaintance of dozens of Obama's former classmates.)

The results of my mini survey surprised me. Everyone I spoke with knew Obama. Even more surprisingly, everyone I spoke with adored him. Not a single person had a negative thing to say about him. And yes, there were some conservatives in the sample group.

The uniformly pro-Obama sentiments were surprising. Law schools are full of future lawyers, and needless to say many lawyers are small and petty people. Since Obama did exceptionally well at Harvard Law, graduating magna cum laude and serving as editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, you would have expected his accomplishments to engender some hostility among his classmates. But they didn't.

In the past, I've taken the results of my personal poll as an assurance that Barack Obama is a decent guy. Harvard Law School is a pretty intimate place, and there's no way anyone could fool not only so many people but apparently all the people over a three year period. As this campaign has wore on and Obama has progressively become a less attractive figure, I still take comfort from his former classmates' high regard for him.

But there's another side to such uniform popularity. Remaining in virtually everyone's good graces requires a fair amount of work. It requires a form of day-to-day politicking that most people eschew. People who achieve such popularity have to work at it.

They also have to be not particularly choosy about who they pal around with. They have to be non-judgmental. One thing we've seen in Barack Obama's past associations is a surfeit of non-judgmentalism. Most people would decline to adopt someone like Jeremiah Wright as their crazy uncle. Still more would refuse to have anything to do with an unrepentant terrorist like William Ayers. But Obama apparently never takes a stand with such individuals and, as we've seen, never cuts ties with them. In this way, he's much like the typical politician who feeds on the fondness of others in a way that would be foreign to normal people.

Because Obama's champions in the media have determined that he is unlike any politician who has come before him, no one has bothered to make a rather obvious comparison between Obama and Ronald Reagan. A few months ago, when some courageous scribes had the unmitigated chutzpah to notice a significant fall-off in Obama's performance when he didn't have a teleprompter feeding him the words to say, the left protested in outrage. Since then, it has become conventional wisdom to note that Obama struggles when speaking extemporaneously. The Obama campaign itself has acknowledged this fact by making Obama unavailable to the press and canceling any future debates with Hillary Clinton after his calamitous performance in Pennsylvania's last tussle.

Of course, Ronald Reagan had a similar pattern in his later public performances. Unfortunately for the Gipper, the press wasn't quite so pliant. The media loved to point out how Reagan's efforts during Michael Deaver-orchestrated set-pieces differed from his stumbling performances when he had to speak off the cuff at press conferences. Late in his second term, the press relished the chance to describe in some detail how much Reagan had to prepare for press conferences, lest he (in their telling) make a fool of himself. Reagan's media critics used his relative struggles with extemporaneous speaking as prima facie evidence that Reagan was a dullard.

Of course, there is a major difference between Reagan and Obama. Before entering presidential politics, Reagan had spent decades refining and expressing his political philosophy. Obama's political philosophy remains something of a cipher. Often, Obama's views seem like they're half-baked, and that Obama hasn't carefully considered the issues that he expounds on. When Obama discussed the capital gains tax at the Pennsylvania debate, he came across as surprisingly ill-informed. His promise to tour the world and chat up our enemies sounded more like a knee-jerk reaction than a policy he arrived at after careful reflection.

And then there's the frequent whiff of political opportunism that Obama's posturing gives off. For much of the campaign, Obama posed as a tireless enemy of free trade deals. Then, when amongst friends in San Francisco, he suggested that hostility to free trade is merely the product of hard times. Earlier, an Obama advisor had made a trip to Canada where he urged our hockey-breathing trade partners to not believe Obama's campaign rhetoric on trade issues.

Such antics aren't in themselves a hanging offense. Americans expect their politicians to opportunistically pursue office. The problem is that Obama's supporters insist he is something different, a trans-partisan figure who has entered the political arena only with the loftiest of motives.

Who knows? Perhaps they're right. But one can reasonably doubt that they're correct until proven otherwise. The conclusion that Obama is a vote-chasing machine like other office-seekers is not a manifestly unreasonable one.

The credulity of the most ardent Obama supporters is unbecoming. Their hostility to those who refuse to share their credulity is even less attractive. Yet perhaps the ultimate irony is that their shrill advocacy actually damages their candidate. As this long campaign continues to reveal Obama as a traditional politician, his candidacy suffers from the comparison between the mythical Obama who purportedly practices a new form of politics and the real Obama, a politician who pursues office with the same zeal and in much the same manner as his predecessors and contemporaries.
By Dean Barnett
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