Will Democrats Put Their Faith in Obama?

Sen. Barack Obama could provide a fresh start for Democrats in 2008, but he also could be portrayed as a neophyte.
Sen. Barack Obama could provide a fresh start for Democrats in 2008, but he also could be portrayed as a neophyte. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Democratic phenom Barack Obama, the subject of the latest presidential boomlet, was nearing the end of a thoughtful speech about religion in politics yesterday at a church in Thomas Circle when he mentioned the Sermon on the Mount.

"It's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application," he quipped.

The audience of left-leaning Christian leaders went nuts, apparently interpreting this as a barb at the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. But Obama was being rhetorical, and was not suggesting the Pentagon should surrender to the meek.

Had he said such a thing during a political campaign, the other side could have used it to devastating effect: "When al-Qaeda hits us, Obama turns the other cheek!" Or: "Barack Obama Loves Our Enemies."

Therein lies both the promise and peril Democrats see in the freshman senator from Illinois. Forty-four years old and smart, he is enormously charismatic -- and utterly undefined. Democrats who are worried about a Hillary Clinton debacle in 2008 think he could provide a fresh start after the fall of old bulls such as Al Gore and John Kerry. But he could also be portrayed as a neophyte, naive about the dangers in the world.

Whatever he is, he is something new for the Democrats. Without affectation or awkwardness yesterday, he got off phrases such as "we are blessed" and "we can raise up this covenant" and "you need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away."

"Amen! Amen!" a woman cried out.

As President Bush did on the stump, Obama spoke of his own embrace of Jesus after a secular childhood -- what evangelicals call their "testimony."

"Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me," Obama said beneath the cross and organ at National City Christian Church. "I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth."

Jim Wallis, the gathering's host and the Democrats' favorite evangelical leader, had gone to heaven. "This is a brother who gets it!" he announced before Obama spoke. When Obama finished, Wallis proclaimed him "a new national leader who is going to teach America about the relationship of faith and politics."

This is Obama's moment. The Chicago Tribune on Sunday editorialized: "Obama's supporters should encourage him to run." He has a new (campaign?) book coming out, and he's the most popular Democrat on the fundraising circuit -- having collected $6 million for other candidates and $1.5 million for his PAC.

The Obama Dilemma: Run for president now and risk looking inexperienced, or wait until later and risk becoming a guy who says, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

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