Clinton, Obama, and the Third Way

Why all the excitement among Democrats over Barack Obama? Look at Democrats' top choices for the 2008 nomination: Hillary Rodham Clinton (37 percent among registered Democrats in this month's CNN poll by Opinion Research), Obama (15 percent), Al Gore (14 percent), John Edwards (9 percent), and John Kerry (7 percent). Only one name on that list looks new. All of the others are tied to the past.

Obama burst onto the political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a stirring call to unity and reconciliation. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America," he told the convention. "There's the United States of America." Obama is new, he's eloquent, and he's the embodiment of multiculturalism. Bill Clinton used to describe himself as "the man from Hope." Obama's best-selling book is The Audacity of Hope -- what he defined in his convention speech as "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

He may be a United States senator but he comes across as a political outsider. That's a very good thing to be in a time when outsiders are in.

Obama has a lot going for him, and doubts about Hillary Clinton's electability top the list. Most voters don't want her to run for president. They said so, 55 percent to 44 percent, in last month's Gallup Poll. Clinton is at the top of the Democrats' list: 77 percent of Democrats want her to run. But she's near the bottom of the GOP's list: 88 percent of Republicans say she shouldn't run.

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What about Obama? Voters are a little skeptical about the senator from Illinois. By 48 percent to 38 percent, they say they don't want him to run for president. Sixty percent of Democrats do want him to run, but 60 percent of Republicans don't want him to. So among Democrats, Obama is less popular than Clinton, and among Republicans, he's less unpopular than she is. In other words, he's less divisive than the senator from New York.

Obama is the first nationally prominent African-American political figure who has not come out of the civil-rights movement. That is one reason that Americans don't see him as divisive. Race has not been his cause.

Nevertheless, the question of electability hangs over Clinton and Obama alike. Is America ready for a woman president or an African-American president? In the CNN poll, a strong majority said yes. Sixty percent said the country is ready for a woman president, and 62 percent said it is ready for a black president. However, polls are not highly reliable on questions of prejudice where there is perceived to be a "right" answer (that discrimination is wrong). Voters are often unwilling to acknowledge their own prejudices, even to themselves.

If Clinton has too much political baggage, Obama may not have enough. Democrats worry that the freshman senator lacks national and international experience. His response? "The important thing is not experience per se," Obama told an interviewer. "Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had the best resumes in Washington, and they initiated a fiasco in Iraq. But rather, does someone have the judgment necessary to learn from experience?"

Neither Clinton nor Obama has military experience or strong national security credentials. Bill Clinton had the same problem in 1992, and so did George W. Bush in 2000. Both of them still managed to become president. But Clinton and Bush took office in the interwar years, after the Cold War ended and before the war on terrorism began, when no one seemed to threaten the United States. It's different now. Voters are once again considering a candidate's qualifications as a potential commander-in-chief.

Elections are always about the political moment. While the demand for an outsider makes Obama look very good right now, the situation could change dramatically by 2008. Howard Dean was the hot candidate in 2003, but voters in Iowa rejected him because they worried he wasn't electable. (The famous "Dean scream" came after he lost the Iowa caucuses.) If the question of electability continues to hang over Clinton and Obama, Democrats are bound to start asking, "Isn't there a third way?"