America's baggage is Obama's burden

01/19/2007 5:19 PM

01/14/2009 10:37 AM

President Obama?

No, not yet. But, the intention of Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, to move toward that goal seems clear with this week's news that he is forming an exploratory committee to raise money toward a possible White House bid. Count me among those who regard the bid as a foregone conclusion.

Strike while the iron is hot. Isn't that what the axiom says? And whose iron has ever been hotter than Obama's? The man is a rock star, a combination plate of handsome, intelligent and charismatic that has his supporters giddy. On the other hand, the battlefield of presidential politics is littered with the bones of rock stars for whom the giddiness of supporters was not enough. John Anderson and Ross Perot come to mind.

There are two obvious pitfalls facing Obama. One is his lack of experience. His two years in the Senate represent the sum of his federal résumé, though he also has under his belt many years in the Illinois statehouse and as a constitutional lawyer and community activist.

Obama has a ready answer for the experience question. As he told me in an interview in November: "I think the one thing the American people require of their president is good judgment. In most of our lives, we hope that more experience gives us better judgment -- but not always. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had an awful lot of experience, but displayed poor judgment in this Iraq War, in my mind. So part of the measure I have to take is, do I feel I have the judgment to take the toughest job on earth."

Touché. But one wonders if the question will be so easily put to rest this year. While his inexperience at the federal level certainly does not disqualify Obama from the presidency and while we've had politically inexperienced presidents before -- Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower come to mind -- I suspect experience is going to loom large as a factor in the next election, given the mess the new president will inherit from George W. Voters will be more wary than usual of a would-be chief executive who seems to require too much on-the-job training.


Which brings us to the second potential pitfall, the most obvious one. Race and culture. While mainstream media have seemed intrigued by, but not obsessed with, the senator's heritage, the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the extreme right blogosphere. There, one seldom reads any reference to Obama that does not make reference to his middle name: Hussein. Then there are those who observe that only a single consonant separates his surname from the first name of the al Qaeda leader who launched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It is such nakedly puerile slander that your first response is to laugh. Then you remember how that same blogosphere managed to turn the war hero John Kerry into a "traitor" and the Texas Air National Guardsman, George W. Bush, into a war hero -- and it seems much less funny.


Barack Obama is an African-American man with a Muslim name who would be seeking the presidency in a historically racist nation currently at war against Muslim extremists. One wonders if there is enough handsomeness, intelligence and charisma in the world to overcome all that.

For my money, though, Obama's signature asset is not his brains, his looks, or his magnetism. Rather, it's this: He seems reasonable. Though unabashedly liberal, he does not come across as a prisoner of ideology. He seems a man who can be persuaded by logic. It's an attractive trait made more so by the fact that we have seen it so rarely in recent years.

The question is, whether it will be attractive enough to offset concerns about inexperience and transparent appeals to xenopobic fears.

Either way, this promises to be a fascinating political season.

And a very long year.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr


Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at or visit his website at

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