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A Phenom With Flaws

Barack Obama waves to supporters at a rally Sunday in Portland, Ore.
Barack Obama waves to supporters at a rally Sunday in Portland, Ore. (By Chris Carlson -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 23, 2008

Is Barack Obama a weak presidential candidate or a strong one? The answer is: yes.

In his slow stumble toward victory, Obama has revealed vulnerabilities in his coalition, his ideology and his temperament.

By the latest round of primaries, almost no serious commentator or politician entertained the notion that Obama could lose the nomination. Yet he was still walloped by Hillary Clinton in Kentucky by 35 percentage points. In that state, Obama lost among men and women; people who attend church weekly and people who never attend; people with college degrees and people without; people making more than $50,000 a year and people making less. It is always disquieting for a monarch to hear muttering and jeers along the route of his coronation -- in this case, coming from middle-class and rural voters he will eventually need.

Over the months, Obama's claim to be a post-partisan moderate has also frayed, especially on foreign policy. Even the most vigorous advocates of global diplomacy would not suggest unconditional, head-of-state talks with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea -- exactly what Obama has promised. His foreign policy staff now admits that a series of lower-level meetings would be necessary to prepare for these summits -- hotel accommodations in Pyongyang are doubtless a challenge. But the problem is not with the preparation, it is with the pledge, which is not only wrong but ridiculous.

A simultaneous withdrawal from Iraq and an unconditional summit with Iranian leaders would be a capitulation to Iranian nuclear ambitions and terror sponsorship, a signal to our Sunni Arab allies that they will face the Iranian threat alone, and an unprecedented betrayal of Israel.

And the strains of the nomination process have revealed the vulnerabilities of Obama's personality. Reporters who have covered him for years respect his decency but diagnose an intellectual pride bordering on arrogance. He is skillful at avoiding direct and uncomfortable questions -- his Philadelphia race speech was a sophisticated but ultimately unsuccessful diversion from the main issue of his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. At key moments, Obama has shown a preference for cleverness over candor -- highlighting the appeal of John McCain's candor candidacy.

As a result of all these factors, Obama and McCain are running fairly even in respected polls such as Gallup, alternately trading the lead by a few points -- at a time of massive anti-Republican discontent during which Obama should be cleaning McCain's clock.

Yet I cannot get two figures out of my mind -- 75,000 and one. There were 75,000 attendees at Obama's Portland, Ore., rally on Sunday -- a monumental political achievement, found at the confluence of organization and enthusiasm. Obama does not merely talk of a new kind of politics; his charisma, story and tone symbolize a shift in political eras. Obama voters believe they are changing politics forever -- a claim that Al Gore or John Kerry could never credibly make. At its best, this desire to break the dominance of politics-as-usual motivated support for John Kennedy and the New Frontier. At its worst, it motivated support for professional wrestler Jesse Ventura to be governor of Minnesota -- he won nearly half of young voters in a three-way election. In either case, it is hard to bet against excitement and idealism.

The "one" is Mark McKinnon -- a media adviser to McCain, a friend and former colleague of mine, a Texas Democrat who strongly supported George W. Bush, and a man of great decency and integrity. Early last year, he gave me a copy of Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" and said he had informed the McCain team that he could not help lead a general election campaign against Obama. This week, McKinnon kept his word by resigning (though remaining a strong "friend and fan" of the McCain campaign).

It is a reminder of something that Republicans -- even in the busy strife of a campaign -- should not forget or underestimate. Obama is a serious, thoughtful, decent adult who will attract the sympathy of other serious, thoughtful, decent adults. He has evident flaws, but the inspiration he evokes is genuine. His policy views are conventionally liberal, but his story is not a scam. And, in some ways, his election would finally make sense of an American story that includes Antietam and Selma.

The enthusiasm of many Republicans and conservatives to defeat Hillary Clinton would have come unbidden. Against Obama, it will come harder.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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