I have a small section in my post about why I'm voting for Barack Obama that alludes to this, but by some very convincing accounts, Barack Obama is not another Jimmy Carter. In fact, he's not so much an idealist, but more of a political machine with razor sharp elbows. Which explains why he climbed the political ladder so quickly in Chicago, a place where politics is anything but clean.
Two of the most salient criticisms against Obama is that he's hard to define, hard to pin down, and that he hasn't accomplished a lot politically. He's always been an outsider, always been on the move, in his early days thanks to his vagabond parents, his moves were geographical, in his adult years, his moves have been political. But his vagabond nature has prohibited him from accomplishing a lot politically. He has some significant accomplishments, but not enough, probably, to warrant a presidential run or to explain his political successes alone.
Since he first started running for political office, he's been running for a new position about every three years. Never really sitting still to make his mark. David Brooks in a recent op ed talks about this problem here. In fact, in my opinion, David Brooks has been the conservative columnist whose criticisms of Obama have been the most accurate. Brooks has been both positive and negative about Obama, effectively capturing both sides of the coin. Another critical Obama article by Brooks is here.
Finally I linked this article in my previous Obama post already, but its worth linking it again. But this one provides an in depth history of how Obama rose quickly through the Chicago political machine an on to the presidential campaign.
Anyone who thinks Obama is a paper thin weeny does not know much about the ruthlessness of Chicago politics...
But the reality is that he has not had much of a chance to define himself, to establish himself politically around policy. I think that is a problem because we do not have much to go on to determine how effective he would be as president.
And these two problems really are significant and can be summarized here:
1) His stark ambition which is very much on par with Hillary's. If you read the article in the link above you'll find two events in his political history that are most disturbing at least to me:
a) To win the state senate seat, Obama challenged the petitions of his challengers and in doing so was able to remove all his challengers and ran unopposed.
b) In preparation for his US Senate run he re-alligned (gerrymandered) his district to get a constituency that included many of his rich and powerful supporters as well as the African American base.
And an over-arching theme in his ambitious rise to the top includes his willingness to work within the establishment, the political machine of Chicago, making connections with the powerful and rich (including the slumlord, Tony Rezko) all the while always running on the message of change. To me, I believe that if Obama were to win as President, his message of change will be seriously muted in office and will see a very moderate presidency, dependent as he will be on his other message of unity (which implies compromise).
2) His ambition leads to an even more serious flaw. He was always running for another election about every three years for different positions. He never really stuck around doing one thing for any length of time. As a result, his accomplishments are not deep.
As a result of 2) many people including me have no idea what kind of president he will actually become, admittedly its all complete speculation at this point, because his record is really pretty thin.
But here's an attempt to put a little positive spin on these facts, or at least an attempt to explain his appeal to many including me.
This rising star phenomenon is an asset, ironically, among the high tech community. This is an interesting Atlantic article detailing his appeal among the Silican valley scene.
And I guess this is partially why it makes him appealing to me. Although I'm not part of a Silicon Valley startup scene at all, its something I'm peripherally aware of and in awe of. Young 20 somethings stricking at rich and changing the world at Google and at Facebook is amazing. This is kind of the demographic that Barack Obama comes from. Largely, it explains his appeal among the young and his fear among the old.
So, Barack Obama is a risk for sure, largely because of his lack of experience, but in some ways he is a risk worth taking because of that same lack of experience. He's not a push over idealist in the mold of Jimmy Carter. I believe he's tough enough and incredibly smart enough to take on the toughest world leaders, but admittedly, I can't imagine Chicago is anything like taking on the likes of Russia's Putin and the like. I do think he's going to have a massive learning curve and will make some mistakes, perhaps some serious ones.
There have been a lot of energy emitted attempting to define Obama, trying to compare him with past presidents. He's been compared to Lincoln for his potential and his stature (tall and skinny) and his Illinois roots. He's been compared to Kennedy and even Reagan for his incredible charisma and political skill. He's been compared to Jimmy Carter for his thin resume, his idealism, his naivety. He's been compared Clinton and Kerry for his flip flopping and triangulations.
The reality is that Obama is such a completely new phenomenon, he defies comparisons. For me that's what makes him exciting, his possibility and potential. For others, its what makes him a serious risk. And I admit, he is a risk, a big risk.
However, I really believe his politics are incredibly modern and relevant. I still want to write about why the Democratic policies are more relevant in the 21st century age than the Republican party's. This is especially true with Obama at its head. That post is still to come.