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Jewish World Review
Jan. 19, 2007
/ 29 Teves, 5767
Senator's push for unity threatens Prez wanna-bes who divide to conquer
I don't know whether Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will be our next President. I do know that, win or lose, Obama will have a huge impact on the 2008 campaign, one that will force others in the race to mind their manners. Think of him as the "Meet John Doe" candidate.
That's the title of Frank Capra's 1941 masterpiece starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. She is a newspaper reporter in a nondescript city Chicago, perhaps who concocts a story that Cooper, a hobo, would commit suicide on Christmas Eve as a protest against a heartless society. Cooper plays along with the sensational hoax so well that an "everyman" movement springs up, making him the leader and sending shivers through fat-cat pols and powerbrokers. One exchange sums up the film's guiding spirit. When a mayor is told he can't join a John Doe club, a woman explains that "Just the John Does of the neighborhood because you know how politicians are."
"You know how politicians are" could be Obama's motto. That everyman disgust with Washington as usual was front and center yesterday in his statement about why he is exploring a run for the Oval Office. He cites the familiar laundry list of problems health care, pensions, college costs, security and a "tragic and costly war that should have never been waged." So far, so standard, especially for a liberal Democrat.
But it's the next part that defines Obama and explains his sudden poll vault. He says, "But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first."
Notice he doesn't blame only Republicans, he blames all partisans. And he doesn't say "I," he says "we have to change" it.
That sense and sensibility are what give Obama running room. Ina crowded field of bareknuckle insiders easy to depict as partisan dividers, Obama is casting himself as a uniter. One who can cross allkinds of lines. And smile at the same time.
The racial line is the most obvious, he of the white American mother and black African father. And he clearly aims to make a virtue of his short two years on the national stage by challenging all "our leaders in Washington."
Most important, Obama has a natural, easygoing warmth. He headed the Harvard Law Review, yet his manner appears unassuming, even modest. John Doe, indeed.
For now, his approach threatens everybody else in his party, starting with Sen. Hillary Clinton. Polls show her as the ultimate divider, and although she has taken steps toward the center, if nominated, she could probably win only in a close and bitter election. John Edwards, the other top Dem contender, is so far left and identified with "attack" politics that he would likely fade next to Obama.
All that assumes that Obama's sizzle doesn't fizzle and that his strengths stay that way. At the very least, if he plays his role right, the others will have to follow his lead by putting away the brass knuckles and developing the common touch on the stump. That alone would be a happy ending straight out of Hollywood.
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Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
© 2006 NY Daily News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services