Mr. Obama's Show

Monday, August 25, 2008

FOUR YEARS ago, an unknown state senator with an unlikely name made an unexpected splash at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He summoned the better angels of the country's nature, expressing the audacious hope of uniting red and blue America. He stole the show -- but hardly anyone imagined that he could end up, four scant years later, seizing his party's presidential nomination. As the convention that will make that status official gets underway in Denver today, Barack Obama's meteoric rise underscores the challenge that he faces in seeking the presidency and that he will use the convention to address: Is he ready for the job? Does he offer, as Hillary Rodham Clinton scoffed during the primary campaign, mere flowery words unsupported by adequate experience? Is he, as John McCain now suggests, a dangerously untested celebrity?

The suggestion that Mr. Obama is all rhetorical fluff is mistaken. In the course of his meticulously planned campaign, he has laid out a set of detailed policy positions -- more detailed, in some key areas, such as health care, than Mr. McCain's. He has set broad presidential priorities: getting troops out of Iraq; expanding health-care coverage; promoting alternative energy and dealing with climate change. He is smart and thoughtful.

Yet Mr. Obama's campaign was founded on the notion that the specifics he offers are less central than the underlying imperative for a change in politics as usual. As Mr. Obama said in launching his candidacy 18 months ago, "What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America."

These are noble sentiments, and Mr. Obama certainly demonstrated an impressive ability to energize new voters during the long primary campaign. But the record is more mixed about his willingness to tackle the hard choices that he understands will be required of the next president or to change the poisonous tone of political discourse. The evidence of his tolerance for political risk-taking has been rather thin so far, and it would be naive to expect much more in what promises to be a close election. Mr. Obama, it turns out, is as capable of scoring the cheap political point as other politicians, and the sharp elbows he has been showing of late are viewed with more relief than regret by many in his party.

As Mr. Obama prepares to take his place at the helm of his party, where he will lead it remains hazy, even to those who have watched him closely. Conservatives caricature Mr. Obama as an ultra-liberal, the furthest-to-the-left Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern in 1972. Some liberals, meanwhile, fume over Mr. Obama's positioning, or repositioning, on issues such as the warrantless wiretapping legislation, capital punishment or the Second Amendment.

In truth, it is possible to pick out an Obama position and place him at almost any point on the Democratic political spectrum. He was to the left of Ms. Clinton on some issues during the primary campaign, most notably ending the war in Iraq; he was to the right on others, in particular the question of whether individuals should be required to obtain health insurance. Mr. Obama argues that some of the schisms that divided the party on economic issues are less pronounced now than during Bill Clinton's presidency, yet he is clearly less concerned about cutting the deficit than the last Democratic president and less committed to lowering trade barriers. The era of big government would not be over in an Obama administration.

Where would a President Obama stand firm on principle? Where would he bend to achieve consensus? How would he balance the competing, and to some extent mutually exclusive, imperatives of mobilizing for leftward change and forging bipartisan agreement? These are difficult questions to answer in the abstract; they cannot be fully resolved by four days of speechifying or even a brilliant reprise of Mr. Obama's Boston performance. But many voters will be looking for clues this week.

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