While the New Year can be expected to bring a series of major announcements about who will or won’t run for the presidency, none is more anticipated than a decision from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. The political world has been abuzz for weeks at the prospect of an African-American making a serious run at the Democratic nomination and the question of race seems thankfully to be far less a concern than Obama’s relative inexperience in both foreign and domestic policy.
Whether this nation is finally grown up enough to accept the possibility of a black becoming president, this much is certain: For the first time, the prospective candidate, if he decides to push ahead, will be coming not from the arena of civil rights and protest but from a position that is on an equal footing with the other potential nominees, a high elected office. Until now the African-American candidates — there have been several, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton come quickest to mind — have approached the task from almost an adversarial position with the white segment of the electorate.
That is not a place the iconic Rev. Martin Luther King thought would be the most advantageous for African-Americans. He understood that only if the black candidate was equal in political (elected) stature as the rest of the field and was broadly appealing to whites as well as to blacks would there be an opportunity to sublimate race and successfully break the color barrier to the Oval Office.
Obama most definitely fits part of that profile. He is a handsome U.S. senator with a first-rate mind and a quick wit. He is not given to the fire-and-brimstone racial rhetoric of the old days. In the last election, he was among the most popular and tireless workers for white Democratic candidates as well as for black candidates. He is considered the one black candidate who could overcome the built-in racial negative factor that has plagued other African-American candidates.
What he lacks is the tenure and experience in national office, particularly in foreign policy, that many voters believe is necessary in a world that is increasingly tumultuous, both politically and economically. The honor of having the first African-American elected to the presidency probably should have gone to the Republicans, who tried unsuccessfully to convince former Secretary of State Colin Powell to run several times. Powell matches Obama’s charisma, but adds unparalleled military and foreign-policy experience to the mix. But he has shown no interest in seeking the office.
Obama brings more excitement to the early speculation than any other candidate with the exception of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. He says he will make a decision next month, as will Clinton. She already has a strong campaign chest, leads him in the early polls and has an organization geared up waiting for the word. She also has the advantage of being married to one of the best campaigners in the 20th century.
Veteran observers believe that Obama will run on the theory that even if he loses the nomination, he will have gained valuable experience. They also contend that the chances for electing a Democrat may never be better considering the growing unpopularity of President Bush and the Republicans and that to wait another eight years would be tempting political fate. His time, they believe, is now and the fact that he seems to lack the seasoning and experience can be overcome by his proven campaign skills. His advisers are telling him it would not take them long to gin up a competitive campaign organization to match that of Clinton, whom they argue is hindered by a negative factor as large as, if not larger than, his — the “she can’t win” stigma.
Then there is, as always, the vice-presidential question. Even if Obama cannot win the top spot on the ballot but shows good strength, he would position himself as the possible running mate of whomever does. Serving a term or two as vice president, his supporters believe, would give him a leg up for the presidency. While that strategy has succeeded in the past — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, for instance — it is not always the sure bet it might seem. But then, no one runs for the vice-presidential nomination.
Whatever Obama decides, the very fact that he is considered a viable contender in only the third presidential election in the new millennium is refreshing and long overdue. The next few weeks should be interesting.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)