Obama at the Helm

By Peter Beinart
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Deep into a primary campaign that was supposed be over by now, Barack Obama must still answer one fundamental question. Jeremiah Wright notwithstanding, it's not whether he's too black. It's whether he's too green. Hillary Clinton has made Obama's inexperience her chief line of attack, and if she goes down, John McCain will pick up where she left off. Luckily, Obama doesn't have to rely on his legislative résumé to prove he's capable of running the government. He can point to something more germane: the way he's run his campaign.

Presidents tend to govern the way they campaigned. Jimmy Carter ran as a moralistic outsider in 1976, and he governed that way as well, refusing to compromise with a Washington establishment that he distrusted (and that distrusted him). Ronald Reagan's campaign looked harsh on paper but warm and fuzzy on TV, as did his presidency. The 1992 Clinton campaign was like the Clinton administration: brilliant and chaotic, with a penchant for near-death experiences. And the 2000 Bush campaign presaged the Bush presidency: disciplined, hierarchical, loyal and ruthless.

Of the three candidates still in the 2008 race, Obama has run the best campaign by far. McCain's was a top-heavy, slow-moving, money-hemorrhaging Hindenburg that eventually exploded, leaving the Arizona senator to resurrect his bankrupt candidacy through sheer force of will. Clinton's campaign has been marked by vicious infighting and organizational weakness, as manifested by her terrible performance in caucus states.

Obama's, by contrast, has been an organizational wonder, the political equivalent of crossing a Lamborghini with a Hummer. From the beginning, the Obama campaign has run circles around its foes on the Internet, using MySpace, Facebook and other Web tools to develop a virtual army of more than 1 million donors. The result has been fundraising numbers that have left opponents slack-jawed (last month Obama raised $40 million, compared with Clinton's $20 million).

But the Web is the political equivalent of gunpowder: It can mow down your opponents, but it can also blow up in your face. In 2004, Howard Dean's campaign also raised vast sums online, but it spent the money just as fast. By embracing the anarchic ethos of the liberal blogosphere, Dean generated enormous excitement, but he couldn't harness it. Within his decentralized, bottom-up campaign, a thousand flowers bloomed, but not at the right time and in the right place. "You cannot manage an insurgency," said Dean's Web guru, Joe Trippi. "You just have to ride it."

The Obama campaign has proved that adage wrong. It has married Web energy with professional control. It has used the Web masterfully but, unlike Dean in 2004, sees it as a tool, not a philosophy of life.

At the top, in fact, the campaign is quite hierarchical. There's no question who's in charge: David Axelrod, a grizzled Chicago street-fighter whom Obama has known since he was 30. Axelrod and his subordinates believe their guy represents a new kind of politics, but they're not above using old-school, hard-ball tactics -- even against his own supporters -- to help him win. Last spring, for example, when the Obama campaign realized it couldn't control a popular Obama page on MySpace, it persuaded the company to shut the page down.

It is this remarkable hybrid campaign, far more than Obama's thin legislative résumé, that should reassure voters that he can run the government. As president, he'll need to keep his supporters mobilized: It will take a grass-roots movement, breathing down Congress's neck, to pass universal health care. But in dealing with those very supporters, he'll also have to be ruthless so as not to get caught up in the kind of side skirmishes, such as gays in the military, that weakened Bill Clinton early on. Obama's experience whipping up support on MySpace while simultaneously tamping it down is exactly the kind he'll need in the Oval Office.

The danger is that Obama will fall prey to the malady that ruined Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter: self-righteousness. Elections are winner-take-all, but governing isn't. Candidates can denounce Washington, but presidents have to live there. If the lesson Obama draws from his outsider campaign is that he and his supporters are children of light while those who oppose them are cynics, he'll find it hard to compromise. Successful presidents know how to make half a loaf look like a big win, and presidents with messiah complexes don't do that very well. But if Obama can come across as idealistic without being moralistic, if he can keep his supporters' spirits high and their expectations in check, if he can fuse exuberance and discipline, he might just run the government pretty well. That won't be easy, but then, neither is running for president. Just ask Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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