Barack Obama Emerging as Clinton Alternative #1

Yesterday’s NYT reported that Sen. Hillary Clinton is lining up supporters in New York and otherwise “strongly inclined to run for the presidency and was eager to do so,” throwing water on speculation that she will forgo a White House bid in order to consolidate power in the Senate. Today’s edition reports that Barack Obama is sucking the remaining oxygen from the room.

But whatever complications he might pose for Mrs. Clinton are dwarfed by the shadow he is throwing over lesser-known Democrats. Almost without exception, they have approached this race with the same strategy: to try to emerge as the alternative to Mrs. Clinton and take advantage of substantial reservations in Democratic circles about her potential to win the White House.

There is only so much money, seasoned political expertise and media attention to go around, so the prospect of Mr. Obama eyeing the presidential nomination is understandably unsettling to his potential rivals. Whereas their original success was contingent on Mrs. Clinton folding, now they face the prospect of having to hope that two high-profile national Democrats collapse in the year leading into the Iowa caucuses.

I continue to think of Obama as the Democrats’ Colin Powell, minus the impressive résumé. Yes, he’s personable and a dynamic speaker but he has no significant public policy or leadership experience. Two years as a Senate backbencher hardly qualifies. Still, the pols are gushing.

Mark McKinnon, who was a top adviser to President Bush in his two White House runs and who is a senior adviser to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a likely presidential candidate in 2008, said, “I think Barack Obama is the most interesting persona to appear on the political radar screen in decades.” He added, “He’s a walking, talking hope machine, and he may reshape American politics.”

That may prove true. To me, like pre-2001 Colin Powell, he’s an unknown quality, a likable guy whom voters can imagine think exactly like they do about major issues. Once he starts taking positions, he’ll naturally alienate people. So far, though, he’s running as Mr. Nice Guy.

Mr. Obama has already provided some hints of how he would position himself against Mrs. Clinton, suggesting he would link her to her husband’s presidency and their role in the intense partisanship that marked much of the 1990s and that carried over into the Bush presidency.

During a lengthy interview just before the midterm elections, Mr. Obama portrayed himself as part of a new generation of political leaders. Asked whether he detected a void in the Democratic presidential field, Mr. Obama replied that he sensed a mood of “Do we want to get beyond the slash-and-burn, highly ideological politics that bogged us down over the last several decades?”

So, basically, he wants a kinder, gentler America. To build a bridge to the 21st Century. He’s a uniter, not a divider. That’s all well and good. But presidents have to make hard decisions. Those are usually divisive.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    the Democrats’ Colin Powell, minus the impressive résumé

    Word. Affirmative action at work, my friends.

  2. Fog says:

    He is easily as qualified as the current office holder.

  3. Anderson says:

    He is easily as qualified as the current office holder.

    Right. Let’s not go there again, shall we?

  4. ‘an unknown quality, a likable guy whom voters can imagine think exactly like they do about major issues’

    That pretty much described Carter and Clinton when they started to break out of the pack in ’76 and ’92. Of course, they both had the minor resume filler of being a state governor and the the appeal of being from the south. Obama would test the question of whether the blank public image that people can cast their beliefs onto or the southern accent is the key to democratic victory in the last 40 years.

  5. Rick says:

    You know, President Lincoln only served two years in the House of Representatives before he became President… talk about inexperienced. Having said that, times have changed and a nice personality does not work for me. I need baggage. I need someone who can actually influence people, stop them in their tracks. There are not many candidates who can do that. Obama can stop you, but all he offers are words… there is no action. I will really hate to see Obama screw up his political career, he has such potential.

  6. Tano says:

    In fact, he has better qualifications than that other guy from Illinois who became our greatest president. So, whats the problem?

  7. What do think about a Clinton-Obama ticket?

  8. May I suggest that a few of your commenters go and read a litle history if they think that those two years are the only qualifications Abraham Lincoln had for the presidency. Or were their barbs aimed at Ronald Reagan? Either way, they appear to be utterly ignorant of history.

    By the way, only one American president was ever granted a patent. Can you guess which one?

  9. Madelaine Proust says:

    President Hillary Clinton and VP Barack Obama. Now, that is making history! In 8 years, when Mrs. Clinton’s second term as President is over, Barack will be the shoe-in for President. The timing for both of them, in this scenario is perfect. And they like each other and have almost identical voting records. Hillary, however, has the legislative record and experience.