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Saturday, January 05, 2008

WHY I’M NOT SOLD ON BARACK OBAMA

Even before all of the votes were tallied in Thursday night’s Iowa caucuses, it was clear that my candidate – Delaware Senator Joe Biden – wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, how completely his candidacy had been overshadowed by the star power of rival Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards was evident immediately as the night began. The legitimate second-tier Democratic candidates – Biden, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd – were unable to garner any significant support. Biden and Dodd dropped out of the race that night; Richardson’s campaign will continue, but at two percent of the vote in Iowa, his fourth-place finish was far behind Obama, Edwards and Clinton, who took first, second and third, respectively.

I’m convinced that Biden’s candidacy failed because the media never gave it the attention it deserved, instead focusing on the top-tier candidates who are frontrunners from the beginning solely because of their celebrity. It could be argued that Biden never generated enough support on the ground to make his campaign worth covering, but that sort of cyclical thinking has given us a post-Iowa atmosphere in which the media, not the people, has narrowed the field. They narrowed the field through their selective coverage; they narrowed the field through heavy top-tier focuses in the debates. MSNBC qualifies as the worst offender in this campaign season, giving Biden, Dodd, Kucinich and Richardson combined less than 30 minutes of on-air time in a two-hour debate held at Drexel University on October 30. Tim Russert, in an obvious effort to trip up Hillary Clinton, directed nearly every one of his questions toward her, leading to the obligatory response from Obama, a rebuttal from Clinton and an answer from Edwards. (Russert was also criticized for various misleading questions aimed at Clinton.)

Biden’s loss certainly can’t be chalked up to a lack of experience. He had the longest and most impressive resume of any candidate in either party. He was an obvious choice for me; the Bush presidency has shown what type of government we get when we vote for a combination of inexperience and an inability to work with those who hold opposing views. Biden’s extraordinary experience in matters both foreign and domestic would have been immensely valuable at a time when we need leaders with strong backgrounds to speak openly and honestly with the American people. And after 36 years in the Senate, Biden has worked – and worked effectively – with every major Congressional player on Capitol Hill. Hillary Clinton champions her experience. Barack Obama cites his ability to affect change. In Joe Biden, voters had the best of both worlds, but his underexposed, and thus underfunded, campaign just couldn’t find any traction in an arena dominated by celebrity.

Over the past year, I’ve been highly critical of one Democratic frontrunner in particular: Barack Obama. Besides a startling lack of experience (which I’ll get to later), I’ve felt that the celebrity that Obama wields, and thus the ease with which he’s been able to conduct a national campaign, is quite simply undeserved. Obama’s rise to the national scene came in 2004 when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention; the media instantly dubbed him a Kennedyesque figure. To be fair, Obama can give a rousing speech. To be equally fair, the Manhattan High School debate team can give impressive speeches, too. Obama’s reputation continued to grow after the 2004 election in Illinois, where proponents ignore that his wide margin of victory can be credited to more than his magnetic personality. Alan Keyes jumped into the race late after Jack Ryan’s scandal-induced withdraw from the campaign; plus, ultra-conservative Alan Keyes was an out-of-state candidate running in heavily Democratic Illinois. Obama’s victory was no surprise.

At the time, I remember thinking that if Obama played his cards right and distinguished himself in the Senate, he could be a powerful presidential candidate someday. I had no idea that he’d begin running for that position almost immediately after entering the Senate.

Obama has consistently run second in the race behind Hillary Clinton, a position which I also feel is incredibly undeserved given some of the other candidates for the Democratic nomination. And now, after what was admittedly an impressive victory in the Iowa caucuses (38 percent of the vote, with Edwards garnering 30 percent and Clinton taking 29 percent), Obama has been deemed the Democratic frontrunner and the man to beat for the nomination. Many are now touting Obama’s inevitability, although anyone who honestly thinks that the race for the nomination is over simply does not understand or appreciate the fluidity and unpredictability of the primary structure. But he’ll likely continue to do well, promoting himself as the “candidate of change,” and his victory in Iowa has only increased his media exposure. At this point, I hope that increased media exposure means increased scrutiny, as well. Up to this point, Barack Obama has gotten a free pass from all major media outlets.

The most obvious reason for Obama’s media celebrity is his race. Though he’s 50 percent white, Obama has the potential to become America’s first black president. That’s an inspiring story, to be sure, but not one on which I’d base my support. I’m a bit more concerned about legitimate political issues rather than the strength of someone’s back-story. The media is shamelessly using race as a major factor to promote Obama. Don’t believe me? OK, let’s pretend that Barack Obama was a white man named, oh, let’s say Stan Johnson. Let’s say Stan Johnson gives the exact same speeches as Obama, has the exact same experience and takes the exact same stances on issues. Would Stan Johnson be anywhere on the national media’s radar? Very, very doubtful. Race is certainly no reason to vote against a candidate, but it is absolutely no reason to vote for a candidate either. Voters need to move beyond the “choice” that the media is attempting to ordain for them and take a hard look at Obama’s experience and what he can bring to the table.

National media outlets, of course, should be taking the lead into investigating Obama’s record and his resonance with voters, but they’re not. In fact, after the Iowa caucuses, several pundits on CNN mentioned how Obama’s campaign in the late-summer and early-fall was “boring,” “too academic” and “over voters’ heads.” But did you once hear them talk about that in the late-summer or early-fall? Absolutely not. They’re far too reluctant to openly criticize or investigate a candidate whom they created.

Obama’s experience is greatly lacking. A few years in the Illinois state senate and a three-year U.S. Senate career, half of which has been spent running for president, is hardly what I would call impressive credentials, especially in a field featuring other candidates like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson.

What concerns me the most, however, is the oft-cited theme of Obama’s campaign: change. He says he can change things in Washington. He says he can make Democrats and Republicans work together. He says that he can eliminate the negative tone and the rampant partisanship. In other words, he’s claiming to be a uniter, not a divider. That concerns me for two reasons:

1) 1) I’ve heard those lines before. In 2000, another relatively inexperienced presidential candidate jumped into the national spotlight and claimed that he was a different kind of politician. Eight years later, does anyone still believe that George W. Bush’s scant experience in Texas state politics was adequate to prepare him for Washington, D.C.? Does anyone still believe that George W. Bush has bipartisanship in his blood?

2) 2) If Barack Obama is going to be an agent of change, I would like to see proof of his success in other venues. And if that experience itself is lacking, the Presidency of the United States is hardly the place to let him test his gut feelings about his abilities to affect change.

It would be unfair to make outright comparisons between Barack Obama and George W. Bush, but one can certainly make the case that bipartisan success in the Texas statehouse was no indicator of whether or not Bush could succeed in the White House. Obama’s tenure in the Illinois state senate presents similar ambiguity.

Obama’s campaign themes of “hope” and “change” may be inspirational and have the ability to fire up a crowd, but there should be some beef behind them. It’s no longer good enough to hope for a better government. It’s no longer good enough to believe that a different personality type can bring the type of necessary change to Washington, D.C. We need a candidate who can rally voters with honest facts, evidence and logic, not just slick speeches and slogans. In his recently released book “Independents Day,” Lou Dobbs says the following:

“Even worse than scandal, to my mind, is that our political discourse today relies on guesswork and public shouting in order to achieve an ed. Hard evidence, data, and facts are given short shrift in every branch of the government. Logic is ignored in favor of faith and beliefs. Gut feelings and hoped-for results direct our public policy. … The American people must demand that our elected officials and our federal government rigorously research the facts of each issue, the impact of all public policy options and choices, and replace what are now decades of policy rationalization with reason and rational governance.”

Perhaps Obama is a person who would direct public policy with logic and reason; perhaps he could bring us rational governance. After all, the media did belatedly criticize his campaign as “academic.” But to this point, he has not proven that he is capable of governing as such. His entire campaign revolves around “hope.” But the hope for what? Someone other than Bush? That will happen regardless of who is elected. Maybe the hope for a Democratic administration? The party in power, though, doesn’t matter if they slide back into the same ways of governing as we are currently seeing. “Hope” – it’s inspiring, it’s uplifting and it’s horribly vague, and through this campaign, Barack Obama has not shown me that he’s capable of the very change that he claims he can bring. He’s shown me that he can give rousing speeches. He’s shown me that he can stumble through debates (another weakness of his that the media has ignored). He’s shown me that he can nail political slogans and win elections. But he hasn’t shown me that he can be effective in office.

Obama supporters: without having to resort to visiting his campaign Web site, tell me one piece of legislation that the Senate passed because of Obama’s ability to bring opposing sides together. Give me an example of a program that he sponsored that truly changed the way business is done in Washington. Show me some concrete examples of his power and personal influence among his colleagues in the Senate. Other candidates talk about their experience. I was able to name a dozen things that Joe Biden had done that were of significant impact to the country – examples of his leadership, examples of his distinction in the Senate, examples of his ability to bring people together.

Obama could potentially win my support, but right now, I’m much more inclined to support Hillary Clinton or John Edwards … two candidates who at least seem to be able to point to legitimate experiences in their political careers that will benefit their presidencies. What, besides slogans, can Obama supporters sell me on? So he’s the candidate of hope. So he says he can bring change. Tell me why. Prove to me that he is the candidate to do what he says needs to be done. If he is indeed the inevitable nominee, I need more than easily manufactured and regurgitated political slogans to win my vote. I want to ensure that Obama is more than simply a media construct. Thus far, I am incredibly unconvinced of that.


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