Since I'm Time's Person of the Year, I figured I had a responsibility to share my thoughts on the most exciting political buzz to run through the capital of Blue America in a long time: the almost-expected presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama.
I've blogged previously here (shortly after Obama took office in the Senate) that I didn't believe he would run for president in 2008, reacting to Chicago Tribune blogger's Eric Zorn's column predicting an Obama run (the first media maven to do so, as I recall). And further back, this was my late-night reaction to Barack's victory speech for his Senate primary. I think Barack Obama is a fantastic legislator and I'm very proud that I was an early supporter. If he does run, I'll enthusiastically support his campaign.
I'm way outside of conventional wisdom, but I'm going out on my limb: Barack Obama will decide over the next two weeks that he does not want to serve as President of the United States.
There's no question that he'd be a fantastic candidate. Progressives like me will stick with him, because he's straight with us. He's never condescending. He's fiercely intelligent and always looking for the best way to buy a better quality of life for most people. But the big deal about this decision-- and it came to me clearly while watching his interview on Leno -- is whether he wants to be the President. It's easy to want to be a candidate for president. He basically already enjoys most of the benefits of a candidate: hundreds of thousands of supporters, national attention to his thoughts and actions and the ability to mobilize dollars and hours for a good cause. Whether he could beat Hilary is a less interesting and relevant question to whether he wants to transform his life inside out in order to do a uniquely better job than other Democratic candidates would do as president.
He and his wife are level-headed enough to live in Chicago after he got a job in Washington. He has always struck me as completely unfazed by the hype. And his best speeches and lines about politics have been ruthlessly pragmatic: the point of all this is to measurably improve the quality of peoples' lives -- nothing else. Fame, glamour, power -- none of that matters. So when I hear Senator Obama talking about needing to have "a unique voice" to justify running for president, I hear an organizer and an advocate who is in politics for the mission of social justice first and foremost making a cool calculation about the expected value of serving as the president. If someone else (another progressive Democrat) can do just a good job as he can do at improving peoples' lives, what's the point of his run?
The obvious unique factor in a President Obama is racial. That's no small thing. But a female President is no small thing either. And a black Senate Majority Leader (his ultimate job, in my opinion, if not Attorney General) is no small thing either.
One of the refreshing things about Barack Obama is how impervious he seems to be from hype. I'm convinced that since he has essentially been bestowed a top-tier candidacy on the strength of his candor, intelligence, charm and hard work, he'll now decide quite independently of the allure of fame or power whether he believes that he can best pursue justice as a presidential candidate. His ability to be a competitive candidate -- which is more than enough for most politicians to make the leap -- is only a threshold question. Now that the ability has been thrust upon him, he's been forced, really, to confront the question whether he can do the most good as President. And I believe he'll calculate that others can do that job (and weather the enormous personal sacrifices) just as well as he could (if not quite as candidly and without the historic racial breakthrough that he would bring).
Barack Obama's ability to improve the lives of regular people around the globe is growing every year at an astonishing pace. I believe he doesn't need a presidential campaign -- or to serve as President -- to grow his power for social progress. Like Al Gore or Bill Clinton or Bono, Barack Obama can mobilize millions for smart, progressive causes and for the political civility that permits a consensus on good policy to emerge. And I'm predicting he'll make a similar calculation.
UPDATE: I realize that almost all news accounts have described the Obama campaign as essentially existing and the decision period as a formality. I just can't shake this hunch that news accounts are getting way ahead of Senator Obama's internal decision-making process as to whether he wants to serve as the President.