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Obama the Unknown

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Just tell me one thing Barack Obama has done that you admire," I asked a prominent Democrat. He paused and then said that he admired Obama's speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. I agreed. It was a hell of a speech, but it was just a speech.

On the other hand, I continued, I could cite four or five actions -- not speeches -- that John McCain has taken that elicit my admiration, even my awe. First, of course, is his decision as a Vietnam prisoner of war to refuse freedom out of concern that he would be exploited for propaganda purposes. To paraphrase what Kipling said about Gunga Din, John McCain is a better man than most.

But I would not stop there. I would include campaign finance reform, which infuriated so many in his own party; opposition to earmarks, which won him no friends; his politically imprudent opposition to the Medicare prescription drug bill (Medicare has about $35 trillion in unfunded obligations); and, last but not least, his very early call for additional troops in Iraq. His was a lonely position -- virtually suicidal for an all-but-certain presidential candidate and no help when his campaign nearly expired last summer. In all these cases, McCain stuck to his guns.

Obama argues that he himself stuck to the biggest gun of all: opposition to the war. He took that position when the war was enormously popular, the president who initiated it was even more popular and critics of both were slandered as unpatriotic. But at the time, Obama was a mere Illinois state senator, representing the (very) liberal Hyde Park area of Chicago. He either voiced his conscience or his district's leanings or (lucky fella) both. We will never know.

And we will never know, either, how Obama might have conducted himself had he served in Congress as long as McCain has. Possibly he would have earned a reputation for furious, maybe even sanctimonious, integrity of the sort that often drove McCain's colleagues to dark thoughts of senatorcide, but the record -- scant as it is -- suggests otherwise. Obama is not noted for sticking to a position or a person once that position or person becomes a political liability. (Names available upon request.)

All politicians change their positions, sometimes even because they have changed their minds. McCain must have suffered excruciating whiplash from totally reversing himself on George Bush's tax cuts. He has denounced preachers he later embraced and then, to his chagrin, has had to denounce them all over again. This plasticity has a label: pandering. McCain knows how it's done.

But Obama has shown that in this area, youth is no handicap. He has been for and against gun control, against and for the recent domestic surveillance legislation and, in almost a single day, for a united Jerusalem under Israeli control and then, when apprised of U.S. policy and Palestinian chagrin, against it. He is an accomplished pol -- a statement of both admiration and a bit of regret.

Obama is often likened to John F. Kennedy. The comparison makes sense. He has the requisite physical qualities -- handsome, lean, etc. -- plus wit, intelligence, awesome speaking abilities and a literary bent. He also might be compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt for many of those same qualities. Both FDR and JFK were disparaged early on by their contemporaries for, I think, doing the difficult and making it look easy. Eleanor Roosevelt, playing off the title of Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, airily dismissed him as more profile than courage. Similarly, it was Walter Lippmann's enduring misfortune to size up FDR and belittle him: Roosevelt, he wrote, was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for office, would very much like to be president." Lippmann later recognized that he had underestimated Roosevelt.

My guess is that Obama will make a fool of anyone who issues such a judgment about him. Still, the record now, while tissue thin, is troubling. The next president will have to be something of a political Superman, a man of steel who can tell the American people that they will have to pay more for less -- higher taxes, lower benefits of all kinds -- and deal in an ugly way when nuclear weapons seize the imagination of madmen.

The question I posed to that prominent Democrat was just my way of thinking out loud. I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I'm still not sure, though, what's in it.

cohenr@washpost.com


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