The Tigers Woods of Presidential Hopefuls

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(This column was originally published here in March, 2007 shortly after Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his bid for President.)

 Another tall, gangly lawyer from Illinois is running for President.

First, understand one thing: I'm no Democrat. The liberal leanings of the Junior Senator from Illinois make me a bit queasy. I cut my political teeth as a young man in the early •80s during Ronald Reagan's glory days, when the idea of less government and more entrepreneurial spirit turned me into the conservative I am today. Living in Alexandria, Va., it was easy to get caught up in those ideals, and I've pretty much believed in them ever since.

Most people only know Obama as the guy who voted against the Iraq war, unlike his rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. But there's a lot more to this guy. When Obama announced his candidacy for President last month, he made me do a political double-take. Obama conjured images of another presidential hopeful 148 years ago when he announced his candidacy outside the old Illinois Capitol building in Springfield.

Could this be the man to strip some of the skepticism from America's jaded political system?

Right for the times Obama is the polar opposite of our current President. And based on our diminished stature in the world, maybe he is right for the times despite his left-leaning ideology.

His has appeal that crosses party lines, up and down economic classes. He has been labeled the purple candidate for a calculated effort to appeal not to liberals or conservatives, but to Americans. Can this approach work in a presidential election?

Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous "House divided•bCrLf speech at the very spot Obama announced, saying the Union could not endure half slave and half free. The parallels are spooky. Both men served eight years in the Illinois state legislature and two years in the U.S. Congress before running for President. Lincoln's campaign was built around bringing Americans together; so will Obama's.  Lincoln's great challenge was secession and slavery; Obama's crusade is against political disconnect and polarization.

Lincoln vowed to free people of color; if Obama wins he would be the first African-American in the White House.

Obama understand the power of populism. "When you talk to the average voter, they feel completely disconnected from what's taking place,•bCrLf says Obama. "They don't think anybody is actively looking out for their interests. That view is not limited to Democrats or Republicans, it's a pervasive view across the board. One of the things I hope this campaign can accomplish is to give people a sense that they are a part of the process.

"When the American people are paying attention, good things happen. When they're not paying attention they're cynical and withdraw from the process.•bCrLf

Obama, speaking before a boisterous crowd in sub-freezing temperatures at his announcement, seemed at ease without notes as he drew parallels between divisions in the nation during Lincoln's administration.

"Our unyielding faith is that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it,•bCrLf he says. "That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts, his skeptics, his setbacks, but through his will and his words he moved a nation and helped free a people; because of the millions who rallied to his cause we are no longer divided, north or south, slave and free, because men and women of every race• continued to march for freedom long after Lincoln was laid to rest.

"Today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together as one people, as Americans. All of us know what those challenges are: a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling from paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can.•bCrLf

•Failure of leadership' What I really like about Obama is his eloquent ability to speak the unvarnished truth. He said it all in his announcement speech: "What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans; what's stopped us is the failure of leadership; the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of touch decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America.•bCrLf

If this kind of campaigning does not touch a nerve among those disenfranchised by modern day politics, what will?

"As people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what's filled the void: the cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests who have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play•they think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back. The time for that kind of politics is over. It is time to turn the page, right here, right now.•bCrLf

Obama does not sound like a typical tax-and-spend Democrat. In fact, he told his audience in Springfield government programs won't solve every problem.

"Each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility for instilling an ethic of achievement in our children; for adapting to a more competitive economy, for strengthening our communities and sharing some measure of sacrifice.•bCrLf

On the other hand, he supports more pay for teachers in exchange for more accountability; lower costs for college; and universal health care. He supports ethanol and renewable fuels, and if elected, Obama would bring all troops in Iraq home by March, 2008. He talked about building a stronger military and the importance of tracking terrorists.

"But let's also understand that ultimate victory against our enemies will only come by rebuilding our alliances and exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions of people around the globe,•bCrLf he added.

•The meaning of citizenship' "This campaign can't only be about me, it must be about us, about what we can do together,•bCrLf he said. "This campaign must be the vehicle of your hopes, your dreams. It will take your time, your energy and your advice to push us forward when we're doing right and let us know when we're not.

"This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.•bCrLf

"Divided, we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible,•bCrLf says Obama, again conjuring images of Lincoln.

A new generation The son of a Kenyan economist, Obama was born Aug. 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His Swahili name, Barack, means, "blessed.•bCrLf He was the first black president of the Harvard law review. He moved to Illinois over two decades ago just out of college and took a job as a church community organizer; his work took him to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.

Obama's arrival on the national stage began when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and was elected U.S. Senator later that year. He is the author of two best-selling autobiographies and married his wife Michelle in 1992.

Obama cut his political teeth in Springfield as a state senator, where "we learned to disagree without being disagreeable; that it's possible to compromise, so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; that so long as we're willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.•bCrLf

Obama is a reflection of this generation's multicultural melting pot. He brings to American politics the same jolt of vitality Tiger Woods brought to the golf world. But it's a long long road to the White House, and Obama's vision and charisma will certainly be tested in the coming months.

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