The Obama Bandwagon
By BOB HERBERT
The capacity crowd on a rainy night at the John F. Kennedy Library couldn’t have been happier. The guest of honor had been born the same year that J.F.K. was inaugurated, and now he was generating the kind of political delirium we have tended to associate with the Kennedys.
I was the interviewer that night, and as I arrived in a cab outside the library, the driver said, “Who’s on the program?” When I said, “Barack Obama,” the driver replied, “Oh, our next president.”
It’s a measure of how starved the country is for a sensible, appealing, intelligent, trustworthy leader that a man who until just a couple of years ago was an obscure state senator in Illinois is now suddenly, in the view of an awful lot of voters, the person we should install in the White House.
At the Kennedy Library forum on Friday night, Mr. Obama declined to rule out a run for the White House in 2008. In an appearance on “Meet the Press” yesterday, he made it clear that he was considering such a run.
With all due respect to Senator Obama, this is disturbing. He may be capable of being a great president. Someday. But one quick look around at the state of the nation and the world tells us that we need to be more careful than we have been in selecting our leaders. There shouldn’t be anything precipitous about the way we pick our presidents.
That said, the Barack Obama boom may well have legs. During the forum, every reference to the possibility of him running drew a roar from the audience. He’s thoughtful, funny and charismatic. And there is not the slightest ripple of a doubt that he wants to run for president.
The reason he went into politics, he said, was to be able to influence events, to make a difference. “Obviously,” he added, “the president has the most influence.”
I asked what thoughts run through his mind when he thinks about himself and the presidency. He said: “That office is so different from any other office on the planet, you have to understand that if you seek that office you have to be prepared to give your life to it. How I think about it is that you don’t make that decision unless you are prepared to make that sacrifice, that trade-off.
“What’s difficult and important for somebody like myself, who has a wonderful, forbearing wife and two gorgeous young children, is that they end up having to make some of those sacrifices with you. And that’s a profound decision that we won’t make lightly.”
I asked if he could imagine himself, at some point, making the kind of commitment he described. He said that he could, and the crowd erupted.
I asked if he might run in 2008. He said he was focused on the coming Congressional elections.
“So you have not ruled it out,” I said.
“We’ll leave it there,” he said.
The giddiness surrounding the Obama phenomenon seems to be an old-fashioned mixture of fun, excitement and a great deal of hope. His smile is electric, and when he laughs people tend to laugh with him. He’s the kind of politician who makes people feel good.
But the giddiness is crying out for a reality check. There’s a reason why so many Republicans are saying nice things about Mr. Obama, and urging him to run. They would like nothing more than for the Democrats to nominate a candidate in 2008 who has a very slender résumé, very little experience in national politics, hardly any in foreign policy — and who also happens to be black.
The Republicans may be in deep trouble, but they believe they could pretty easily put together a ticket that would chew up Barack Obama in 2008.
My feeling is that Senator Obama may well be the real deal. If I were advising him, I would tell him not to move too fast. With a few more years in the Senate, possibly with a powerful committee chairmanship if the Democrats take control, he could build a formidable record and develop the kind of toughness and savvy that are essential in the ugly and brutal combat of a presidential campaign.
After the interview at the Kennedy Library, hundreds of people lined up to have copies of Mr. Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” autographed. He signed as many as he could. Then he shook hands with everyone who remained and assured them that he would have their books delivered to his hotel, where he would sign them later that night.
He’s 45. There’s no hurry. He should take all the time he needs.