By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—You really can’t blame Barack Obama for running against Washington.
America outside of Washington loves Washington outsiders. Usually, though, they’re not called “senator.” They’re called “governor.” And we tend to elect them president.
Since Obama’s role model, John F. Kennedy, became the last sitting senator to win the White House, we’ve elected seven presidents. Four of them—including the current occupant of the Oval Office—have been governors who ran as some version of the Washington outsider, hellbent on challenging the capital’s entrenched interests and changing its encrusted political culture.
But how can a sitting U.S. senator have—how to say it?—the audacity to position himself as a political outsider, as Obama unmistakably has done? “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” Obama said in announcing his presidential bid. “But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”
The pitch is best understood for its twofold purpose. It’s a fair shot at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the oh-so-inside candidate and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. But more so, it’s a coded effort to address Obama’s Achilles’ heel, his yawning inexperience. And that is the trouble.
If running against Washington is going to be the winning appeal in the 2008 election—and it may well be—then Obama should be careful what he wishes for. There is a bumper crop of governors and former governors running in both parties, each with a claim to having delivered for their states what Washington has failed to deliver for the nation. Bill Richardson, just re-elected as governor of New Mexico by a huge margin, has the added virtue of having served as energy secretary and United Nations envoy. Then there is Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York City ran a municipal behemoth far more complex and politically contentious than just about any state.
Though it was not intended to be, the most cutting retort to Obama’s announcement speech—and to the assertion of his wife, Michelle, that questions about Obama’s thin experience are “baseless claims’’—came not from a Democrat but from Republican Giuliani. “Having had a job where I didn’t have any choice but to make a decision,” the former mayor said while campaigning in California, “prepares you as best you can be prepared to be the president of the United States.”
Whether Giuliani can win the Republican nomination, despite a record of moderation on social issues and a marital history that borders on the bizarre, is a question that fills me with delirious anticipation. But what if the hero mayor of 9/11 is the Republican nominee? It hardly seems a fair match to put him up against a candidate who has been in the Senate for less than one term and whose campaign—even as Obama was electrifying overflow crowds on his first campaign swing—was trying to explain why their man voted “present,’’ instead of simply yes or no, on some contentious legislation in the Illinois state Senate.
The next president will inherit a dangerous world that has hardened against the U.S. during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. This is not 2000, when the campaign unfolded against a backdrop of relative peace abroad and prosperity at home. Then, roughly half the country thought it was reasonable to vote for a guy who seemed more likable than his opponent, who carried a good family name and who promised little besides a tax cut. When he ran for president, Bush already had won two terms as governor of Texas. Yet he was ill suited both by experience and temperament to be president.
Obama is no Bush. His personal background didn’t automatically elevate him to presidential contention; his own efforts and ambition did. His argument that the nation needs fresh perspective and higher hopes than what is offered by tired, old political hands resonates. But it’s also reminiscent of the claims made by proponents of congressional term limits. At the height of the term-limits hoopla, I often wondered whether those who took up the cause would make the same choice if the task at hand wasn’t governing but some other job. If they had a brain tumor to be removed, would they pick the neurosurgeon with the least experience?
The political version of this question is what Obama must answer. It is neither a baseless claim nor a distraction, as his wife contends. It is altogether more serious than that.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.