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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 09:44 am

Watching Obama grow

He knows that his celebrity is a gift. What will he use it for?

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I’m ready to look beyond this election to the next, and hope that, with Barack Obama, our team can win the World Series again. The prospect of our senator as a candidate for president is more fun to think about than this dreary gubernatorial race in which the best candidate is, once again, behind in the polls. What are voters thinking?

An Obama run for the presidency won’t be like that. Obama will talk about anything and everything. He’s not only loquacious, he’s also open, smart, thoughtful, friendly, and so understanding of the other person’s point of view that it’s hard to imagine him running a negative TV ad, or having one run about him. His national tour to promote his new book, Audacity of Hope, plus his campaigning for candidates everywhere, has put him in every newspaper column and on every talk show there is, plus Meet the Press and the cover of Time. Crowds love him, and the national press has gone so gaga that of course he’s reconsidering his earlier pledge not to run in ’08. Who wouldn’t?

Even he finds his celebrity hard to understand, attributing it to the appeal of his “exotic” background as the child of a black African father and a white mother, and the reverse racism of whites who like to see nonangry blacks such as Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods succeed. Regardless of the reason, his charismatic appeal is hot enough to melt a national newspaper columnist. During his Oct. 16 appearance at Sangamon Auditorium, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks gave favorable mention to Obama as one of a fresh new crop of politicians, so during the question time I asked Brooks why he was so enamored. I thought I might hear that the senator’s views on the environment are promising, or that he has interesting ideas for a way out of Iraq. Instead, Brooks told a homely story of how, when they met at the Capitol recently, Obama walked a hundred yards out of his way just to answer Brooks’ question. Isn’t it inspiring that a busy politician would take extra time just to help out a lowly columnist for the New York Times?

I have some regret that Obama is going national before we in Illinois really get a chance to know him. When Bill Clinton got big, there was the Arkansas press corps, who had done battle with him forever, to remind us that he had a past, while assuring us that he was a good guy anyway. Here, all most of us know about Barack Obama is that he’s cool. I read the book, hoping to learn more.

There are charming stories here, and, as we know from Dreams from My Father, the guy can write. For his chapter on the economy, Obama went to Omaha to see Warren Buffett, who complained to the senator that because of the unfair tax structure he would pay taxes at a lower rate than his receptionist did. The author asked Buffett how many of his fellow billionaires shared his views. He laughed: “Not very many.” I appreciated the story of his journey to Christianity after a positive but groundless upbringing in the “wonder” and “freedom” of his mother’s secular spirituality. He describes well the appeal of the “whole person” ministry of the black church, where “the sins of those who came to church were not so different from the sins of those who didn’t, and so were as likely to be talked about with humor as with condemnation.”

After a couple hundred pages I also noticed what Time called Obama’s “excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” Where Bill Clinton could feel your pain, Barack Obama can understand your argument, and though he might not fully agree he’ll certainly take it into account in his decision-making process. His position on what to do about Iraq today is as muddy as anyone else’s. He writes that our strategic goals should be “achieving some semblance of stability in Iraq, ensuring that those in power in Iraq are not hostile to the United States, and preventing Iraq from becoming a base for terrorist activity.” He wants to begin a “phased withdrawal” of U.S. troops by the end of 2006 but doesn’t know how quickly to bring the troops home: “When battle-hardened Marine officers suggest we pull out and skeptical foreign correspondents suggest that we stay, there are no easy answers to be had.”

Obama is desperately trying to sketch out a political third way through problems so he can bring not only a fresh face but fresh ideas as well. He distances himself from the religious right while finding much energy for good in religious people. Then he discusses what the liberals think as a way of saying that he isn’t one of them. This has some appeal to the many of us who can see both sides, but it’s hard to mold centrist moderation into a brand. What now sounds like refreshing openness could soon look like the old mush of the middle.

But there’s time. It took a while for Abraham Lincoln to grow from saving the Union to freeing the slaves. Obama may yet find the strength to move from being another anti-war candidate to being a peace candidate or from worrying like everyone else about the inconveniences of globalization to shaping a new global view. It’s encouraging that he seems to understand better than anyone that his inexplicable celebrity is a gift that must be used for something more than civility. It will be fun to watch him grow.

Fletcher Farrar is president of Illinois Times.

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