Testing the Water, Obama Tests His Own Limits
WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 — On a winter afternoon two years ago, Senator Barack Obama took his oath of office and strolled across the Capitol grounds hand-in-hand with his wife and two daughters. At the time, a question from his 6-year-old sounded precocious. Now, it seems prescient.
“Are you going to try to be president?” Malia Obama asked her father, giggling as a television camera captured the moment. “Shouldn’t you be the vice president first?”
Her innocent musings go straight to a threshold issue Mr. Obama faces as he edges closer to entering the presidential race: his limited experience in national politics.
But they only hint at a complex matrix of questions swirling around his prospective candidacy: Is he simply a first-term liberal Democrat long on charisma who is enjoying a brief moment of fame? Is he, as some of his more enthusiastic fans seem to feel, the post-partisan, post-racial, post-baby boom embodiment of a new brand of politics? Does he have the drive and discipline to survive a wide-open presidential campaign?
Put more bluntly: Is he for real?
“He’s so incredibly skilled, but he’s also had a lot of luck,” said Abner Mikva, a White House chief counsel in the Clinton administration and a longtime friend of Mr. Obama’s. “Hopefully people don’t think the media just puffed him up and he’s a flash in the pan.”
Even his aides wonder if he can meet lofty expectations, which have elevated him beyond a politician’s normal realm, thanks to his celebrity, ambition and biography.
While a presidential campaign would highlight Mr. Obama’s strengths as a lyrical communicator and personable campaigner, it also could expose the shortcomings of a 45-year-old politician not fully developed, and one who will not enjoy the luxury of learning in obscurity.
The next phase of his political development will inevitably draw intense and less flattering scrutiny, particularly if he goes head to head with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party’s presidential nomination; he has already spent considerable time explaining what he now calls a boneheaded mistake of entering a land deal with a Chicago operative who has been indicted on charges of influence peddling. His race — he is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya — could make his candidacy that much more complex.
Mr. Obama said in a brief interview this month that he would make a decision in the next two weeks in Hawaii, his birthplace, where he is visiting his grandmother and other relatives. Before leaving Chicago, he and his wife, Michelle Obama, convened a meeting in which advisers ran through a campaign simulation — complete with mock travel schedules — to convey the grueling demands of a presidential race.
The senator has grown accustomed to keeping a regular routine, including a daily stop in the gymnasium to lift weights, play basketball or run, that would be upended by the demands of travel and fund-raising. He is concerned about the toll a campaign would take on his family, including Malia, now 8, and Sasha, 5.
“We know him, we care about him, we care about his family,” said Cassandra Butts, a law school classmate of Mr. Obama’s who had dinner with him before the holidays. “There is a healthy dose of apprehension even among those who want him to do it. It’s going to be really, really challenging.”
As Mr. Obama mulls his future, aides are already making preliminary plans to set up a presidential campaign based in Chicago, where Democratic contributors would provide a financial anchor to his candidacy. For weeks, he has been convening private meetings with Mr. Mikva and other friends and political allies whose support would be essential, including Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Mr. Obama has sought to navigate the competing currents of celebrity and substance, initially fearful of being caricatured as a lightweight. While most Democrats do not question his aptitude for grasping foreign or domestic policy, it remains unclear whether an Obama candidacy would present a slate of new ideas or just offer a fresh way of articulating familiar ideology.
“He brings to politics a desire to find common ground, which makes it impossible to predict exactly how he would line up on various people’s litmus test issues,” said Laurence Tribe, a liberal scholar at Harvard Law School who once employed Mr. Obama as a research assistant. “I think he comes at things in a way that is perpendicular to the usual left-right axis.”
In the field of prospective Democratic hopefuls, Mr. Obama stands apart from Mrs. Clinton largely because of his early and unwavering opposition to the Iraq war, a position he took while still a member of the Illinois Legislature. Yet, as a senator, he did not deliver a major speech on the subject until he had been in office for 11 months. Now, he believes the United States should begin reducing troop strength in three to five months, a position shared by several Democrats.
According to a ranking by National Journal, Mr. Obama’s voting record is more liberal than 82.5 percent of the Senate, compared with 79.8 percent for Mrs. Clinton. The American Conservative Union gave him a ranking of 8. By comparison, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, received a ranking of 83.
He has demonstrated an occasional willingness to break from liberal orthodoxy, including his vote to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, which at the time infuriated liberals (13 Democrats opposed her). He formed alliances with Republicans on a handful of noncontroversial issues, including wasteful government spending in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
But his potential candidacy is as much about who he is as about his legislative record.
He is not a product of the civil rights movement, but a beneficiary. He did not, for example, attend a black church until he was in college. Yet it is his race as much as anything that would make a presidential run historic.
As the third African-American senator since Reconstruction, Mr. Obama represents a new generation of black leaders who are connected neither by lineage nor by personal experience to the monumental struggle for racial equality.
His roots are traced directly to Africa, where a two-week pilgrimage this summer helped burnish his credentials in the black community and provided a spark to his presidential ambition.
Mr. Obama has pointedly acknowledged that he benefits from his race, noting last year that a new white senator from Illinois would hardly have stirred comparable interest or intrigue. So Mr. Obama has embraced his role, but he has strived to be defined by more than color alone.
“It’s not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take — too angry? not angry enough?” he writes in his latest book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
But in the same chapter on race, he notes, “Whatever preconceived notions white Americans may continue to hold, the overwhelming majority of them these days are able — if given the time — to look beyond race in making their judgments of people.”
But the sense that he could be a trailblazer is only part of what constitutes his celebrity and his political promise.
No Democrat was more sought after in the midterm elections. And Mr. Obama was happy to oblige the requests, which allowed him to build goodwill among Democrats across the country while creating a list of supporters. (At most appearances, tickets were required, so his staff could collect names and addresses, which might be helpful down the line.)
“This is the sort of thing you get once in a generation," said Newton Minow, a Chicago lawyer who served in the Kennedy administration and is an admirer of Mr. Obama. “This is a connection between what the voters need and what the voters want. This is the first time I’ve felt it since Jack Kennedy.”
On his first trip to New Hampshire, this month, Mr. Obama tried to focus on substance, proclaiming himself “suspicious of the hype” surrounding his rapid ascent. Yet he failed to mention his own role in stoking that hype, including appearing in a humorous spot the next day at the start of “Monday Night Football” on ESPN that was designed to mimic the aura of a prime-time presidential address.
And in October, he dropped by the “Oprah Winfrey Show” for an hourlong chat. Ms. Winfrey, a close friend and loyal supporter, gently quizzed him on his presidential ambitions before asking, “Would you announce on this show?” With a smile, he replied: “I don’t think I could say no to you,” adding, “Oprah, you’re my girl.”
Before Congress adjourned this year, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, passed Mr. Obama in the Capitol and after a jovial conversation, tapped him on the shoulder and declared, “Don’t rush!”
Mr. Obama, who said he seriously began thinking about a presidential bid only a few months ago, replied that he could not have single-handedly engineered the attention that has enveloped him.
When he first came to Washington, people close to him believed he might run for governor of Illinois in 2010, with the White House being a far-away dream.
“I don’t want to be driven into the decision simply because the opportunity is there,” he told reporters in New Hampshire, “but rather because I think I will serve the country well by running.”