So Mr. Obama goes to New Hampshire. I would just like to say that I am worried about an Obama candidacy. A number of people have told me he is a tremendous orator, and that he leaves his audiences with a sense of optimism that the most difficult problems of the country are indeed difficult, but they are not impossible. I have read his speeches in written form and even without the accompanying timbre of his voice, I find them to be charismatic in the way friends have described. I wonder how conservatives hear his speeches. Do they make the most ardent supporters of the Bush administration, those individuals who still feel that Bush is doing important work in the world and is being misrepresented by people who just do not understand the imperatives of the current epoch, cringe at what they may feel to be the soft-brained, socialist pandering of a Barack Obama to the muddled masses? And considering this, I remember wondering at the heart-clutching of conservatives when they heard the words of George Bush during the 2000 and 2004 elections. The eloquence of Bush's plain-spoken (mis-spoken to liberal ears) speeches made his supporters believe that Bush was the chosen one, the candidate who would once and for all lead the country on a permanent restructuring of this United States into a land governed by conservative ideals from sea to shining sea.
While one might argue that Bush has indeed effected just such a restructuring and thusly bankrupted the country - socially, morally, financially, and any other way that remains - my initial concern was that his message had such power over so many people, and yet he had so little political experience to recommend him. Karl Rove might suggest this made him the perfect candidate - all message and potential without negative baggage to slow him down. But a good candidate does not a good leader make. I think that is fairly obvious now. Even the profoundly blind among the conservatives must admit that the man whom they once thought to be the chosen one is so only by them.
But about Obama, my worry is this: When Bush spoke, he made the hearts of conservatives leap with optimism. If there were such a thing as a conservative-to-liberal translating device that could be placed in front of Mr. Bush's mouth and translate his words from those that would make the hearts of conservatives leap to those words that would do likewise for the hearts of liberals, would we hear then the speeches of Barack Obama? Eloquence in oratory is after all the sweetest of sweet talking for most liberals awaiting political seduction. Linguistic bumbling is what made them first hate Bush, and then later, condemn those who supported him as the blind following the blind. But the presence of eloquence in Obama may make liberals equally myopic.
In terms of experience, Obama's resume is similarly thin when compared to that of Mr. Bush. He has some experience (1996-2004) at the state level as a senator representing the 13th district in Illinois. He failed in his effort to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary in 2000. He succeeded in winning his election as U.S. Senator when the Republican candidate, Jack Ryan, withdrew and was replaced by Alan Keyes, arguably the least electable person in the world. His record as a state senator was commendable - to liberals. Bush's record as governor was equally commendable - to conservatives. Obama has been lauded for his essential populism and innate understanding of the working class, a sensitivity born into him as the child of an African father and a white mother. Bush's aw-shucks attitude, his jocularity, his malapropisms and mispronunciations, were seen by many voters as signs that he was "just like us." Obama went to Columbia and Harvard. Bush went to Yale. They are as equally not "us" as they are "them" - members of the Ivy League intellectual ruling class that continues to hold sway over the government and politics of this country.
Admittedly, some of these connections are tenuous or even meaningless. The track record of Obama in the state senate does seem to reflect the conscience of someone who is honestly concerned with the health and well-being of people. And one could perhaps just as easily compare the career of Obama with that of former President Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas for approximately 11 years, interrupted for 2 years by defeat. Whether Clinton will be held in posthumous esteem remains to be seen, but he currently stands as one of the best Presidents of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Bush certainly presents no competition there.
But Bush is exactly why I worry about Obama. The world is in bad shape, and our position in this world is worse than merely bad. We can no longer afford the luxury of an inexperienced or marginally competent President, because we do not have the space available for serious mistakes. Obama cannot be held as inherently righteous, no matter how eloquent the speeches may be. Obama must meet the challenges of candidacy and satisfy the proper scrutiny of the electorate.
A President should be eloquent. Eloquence is not an asset. It is a requirement for the job of President. Concern for the health and well-being of people is a requirement for the job. Honesty is a requirement for the job. Integrity is a requirement for the job. Bush made everyone accept the rarity of positive character traits in public servants, because it served his designs on power, not our need to be powerfully represented in the world. If the men who are to lead us are truly like us, then they should be at least as honest as we are. I would argue that in matters of public concern, they should be more so.
Obama (and Hillary Clinton and Tom Vilsack - this is not an argument to interrogate one in order to protect another) should be asked many difficult questions - about foreign policy, about individual rights and freedoms, about the draconian policies of the outgoing administration, about specifics of plans for the future, budgets, diplomacy, China, Russia, the Middle East, etc. Answers should be required and time to do so should be given. If liberals are to truly become the populist party of this country, they cannot merely embrace the first person who says all the things they want to hear. That sort of embrace by the conservatives brought us Mr. Bush, a bad President who was bad because he was bad, not because he was a conservative. As liberals decide who to nominate for the 2008 presidential race, they should challenge everything and every candidate equally, even the things with which they agree wholeheartedly. Even and especially themselves.
Addendum: After discussing this point, one of my very smart friends from the Czech Republic reminded me that the concern is not so much inexperience per se, but what hangers-on inexperience may allow to access the decision making process at the highest levels of government. A President who so lacks the experience required to make decisions about the relative soundness of disparate packages of advice offered for his consideration, may in the end allow decisions to be made for him by people whose interests are not in representation of interests any larger than those of a corporate board of investors. This has undoubtedly happened during the current administration. We can so ill-afford to lose the rest of this country's relationship to the teachings of Locke, it is as if the essence of our representative government were Amazonian rainforest.
Another of my friends, who is professionally involved in politics at a high level, felt she should caution me against conflating Obama's lack of experience with that of Mr. Bush. It is one thing to be inexperienced, she said, but another thing to be inexperienced, unintelligent and devoid of the intuitive leadership skills needed to guide a country through difficult times. She conveyed to me strongly that without his powers of oratory, Obama is merely inexperienced. Bush on the other hand....