Speaking in support of Democratic candidates around the country and pushing his newest book, The Audacity of Hope, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has fanned the flames of a potential run for the presidency in 2008.
The airwaves have been rich with speculation now that he has altered his original position that he would serve out his six-year Senate term for the people of Illinois. Saying that he faced a different circumstance when he was first elected rather than under the current pressure, he boosted the speculation as he headed up speakers at Tom Harkin's annual Steak Fry event in Iowa last month.
Obama fits the "fresh-face" yearning of many Democrats, especially when Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, dropped out of contention from a list that looked like the recent past of the Democratic party: Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry and Al Gore. The emergence of Obama added a new charismatic face to that picture, sparking evaluations of whether he could win.
This reminds me of the many questions about the potential presidency of Colin Powell, when he was widely considered to be leading American public opinion in the early 1990s. Powell was also a fresh face about which Americans knew little — especially his political positions. But they felt that he was vested in a political and cultural diversity that placed him in a different camp from that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson or other civil rights leaders.
Americans yearn for an African American leader who will give them absolution from the narrative pain of slavery and, instead, take them beyond race into a world of inclusion that will blur the remnants that slavery has wrought in the present. Not long after his political definition began to sharpen — and Colin Powell made known that he supported affirmative action and was not a believer in the reflexive use of military power to resolve international crises — his presidential star began to fade.
Currently, Democrats are looking for someone who could mend the hole in their moral armor, thinking that the 2004 election was won by the mobilization of voters of faith. Among those who have attempted to answer the critics that the Democratic Party does not know how to utilize the politics of morality, the senator's speeches have made this linkage more effectively than most. His recent book contains an entire chapter that anchors and explains his unique religious journey and how it infuses his perspective on public issues today.
Nevertheless, there is a major question of whether Obama's experience and popularity among all aspects of the Democratic constituency will allow him to be successful. Many see him as a potential substitute for Hilary Clinton's bid for the presidency, and they might support him in order to block her path. While rumors abound that Bill Clinton has said his wife will not seek the presidency, that Obama might suffice, and Hilary coyly welcomes him into the fray, I see a pair of experienced pols at work.
Bill and Hilary know that very often candidates who look hot in the heat of the day can cool very quickly when they are held up to the glare of the spotlight of excruciating public examination. And while Obama looks good now, they also know that he has no military experience, he has no administrative experience, he would have scant legislative experience in the Senate and thus, little time to have built a record of accomplishments. So, for now, the most that he offers is charisma and a personal story that many feel reflects the leadership needed in the future of a more diverse American society.
In this examination, the attitude of Blacks will be important, and I have yet to hear Barack Obama make a series of tough speeches on the nature of American racism. Neither has he offered creative solutions that begin to resolve the critical economic, social and political issues that still plague Black America.
The Black vote constitutes one-quarter of the Democratic base. It will be interesting to see whether it drives a hard bargain demanding that Obama represent them, or settles, as it has often done, for a "first-Black" promise of symbolic value. I would be surprised if the former holds, so I expect the latter.
Ron Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.