The Catholic University of America
Stephen Schneck, chair and associate professor, politics, and director of the Life Cycle Institute, was quoted in a Bloomberg News article about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's charisma and the road he faces as a presidential candidate. See his comments in the article below.



Obama Bets His Magic Will Endure 'Freak Show' of U.S. Politics

From: Bloomberg
Date: Feb. 12, 2007
Authors: Jay Newton-Small and Kristin Jensen

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- In November 2005, longtime Democratic activist George Stevens Jr. sat in a rapt audience as Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award ceremony. The next day, Stevens wrote a letter to the 44-year-old, first-term Illinois lawmaker urging him to run for president in 2008.

"He's extraordinary," said Stevens, 74, a film producer who made the 1966 documentary, "John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Days of Drums." Like the Kennedy brothers, he said, Obama has "the instinctive sense of leadership and the ability to relate to people."

This weekend, Obama, now 45, granted Stevens his wish by officially announcing he would run. Standing before the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech denouncing slavery in 1858, Obama, who would be the first black president, vowed to help build "a more hopeful America."

"I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness, a certain audacity, to this announcement," Obama said Feb. 10 in Springfield before campaigning in Iowa. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

Obama's challenge now is to sustain his image as a candidate above partisan politics, a centerpiece of his popularity. He will have to demonstrate that the unique qualities that propelled his rapid rise to the first tier of candidates will be enough to carry him through what authors Mark Halperin and John Harris describe as "the freak show" of a U.S. presidential campaign, with the 24/7 scrutiny of cable television, Internet bloggers and political enemies.

Clinton's Advantage

For all of Obama's appeal, he trails frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton by all political indicators: money, polls, and political endorsements. Clinton, a New York Democrat, is a former first lady who has already survived the intense media spotlight that goes with presidential politics.

Yet the past weekend belonged to Obama, with his successful campaign launch, while Clinton, campaigning in New Hampshire, was dogged by questions about her vote in 2002 authorizing President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, opposed the war.

Lose Luster

Analysts say the Obama phenomenon will inevitably lose some of its luster as he, like Clinton, is pressed on issues important to Democratic primary voters. "Right now, Democrats look at Senator Obama and see largely what they want to see," said Stephen Schneck, head of the politics department at Catholic University in Washington.

"Enchanted by his extraordinary charisma, otherwise divided Democrats project what they wish upon the Obama blank slate," Schneck said. "But over the months ahead, he inevitably must begin to define himself."

Obama so far has staked his candidacy largely on being a different kind of politician able to reach across partisan divides at a time when many Americans say they are weary of the status quo. His mixed heritage -- a white mother and African father -- make him "the personification of the American 'melting pot,'" said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Obama is the first person born of a mixed marriage to run for president. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, of Wichita, Kansas, met his father Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan, at the University of Hawaii. After his parents' divorce when Obama was two, his mother married another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, from Indonesia.

Jakarta to Harvard

Obama lived in Jakarta from the ages of six to 10, when he returned to live with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii. He attended New York's Columbia University as an undergraduate, and, after working as a community organizer in Chicago, attended Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.

He served seven years as a state senator in Illinois before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Other first-term senators, including the late Paul Simon of Illinois, have made unsuccessful runs for the presidency. The only senator in the past half-century to be elected directly from that body was John F. Kennedy in 1960, who was in his second term.

Obama talks about such lofty ideals as the politics of hope and steers largely clear of detailed proposals in his speeches. His best-known policy position is his consistent opposition to the war in Iraq. He has called for a phased redeployment of American troops by 2008.

John Howard

That stance brought Obama criticism from across the Pacific Ocean. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq probably "hope for an Obama victory" because he wants to pull the U.S. out of Iraq, the Australian reported yesterday.

"I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies all the way on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced," Obama said.

On other issues, he has provided broad outlines. Last month, he called for universal health-care coverage for Americans by the year 2013. He said he's still developing the plan, which would involve pooling different groups of uninsured people.

This lack of specifics will quickly become unsustainable now that he is an official candidate, according to some members of his own party.

'More Substantive'

"Obama still has a test when he starts getting, frankly, more substantive," U.S. Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and 26-year veteran of Congress, said in an interview last week.

Frank, who said he is neutral in the presidential contest so far, said he finds Obama "a very appealing candidate." Still, he said he was worried to read about Obama "expressing distaste" for the battles fought between former President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

"My approach there was, wait a minute, no, we were on the right side, and they were on the wrong side," Frank said. "And I don't want somebody rising above that very important battle for all the things I cared about."

Obama's supporters say his soaring rhetoric isn't just politics -- that he genuinely has a unique ability to bring people together. The senator himself points to his high approval ratings in Illinois, including the more conservative, rural regions in the southern part of the state, as evidence that he has broad appeal.

'Common Sense'

"That's a pretty good cross section of the country," Obama said in an interview. "If you listen and you appeal to people's common sense and pragmatism, a lot of these categories become irrelevant."

Obama's friends say he shouldn't be underestimated. After an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2000, Obama decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004 against the advice of Lamell McMorris, a Washington consultant who first met Obama more than 15 years ago as a high school student working for Project Vote.

"I just absolutely begged him not to run," said McMorris, 33, who said he believed Obama would have a better chance of getting a congressional seat later. "He absolutely said, 'I think I can do it. I think I can win.' That's the kind of guy that he is. He's seen an opportunity and seized the moment."

'Boneheaded'

Obama already has encountered a few bumps in his initiation to presidential politics -- from questions about a land deal in Illinois that he conceded was "boneheaded" to a false report that as a child he attended a school in Indonesia run by Islamic fundamentalists.

With his campaign now under way, Obama will undoubtedly face more turbulence. "Can anyone maintain a rock star stance for very long without being in the trivial business of rock and roll? The answer is no," said Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Obama said yesterday that he was prepared for the rigors of the campaign. "I'm going to have to be run through the paces, people are going to have to lift up the hood, kick the tires and be clear that I have a grasp of the issues that are of utmost importance in people's lives," he told supporters at a house party in Iowa Falls, Iowa. The state holds the first-in-the- nation presidential caucuses next January.

Stevens, a founder of the American Film Institute in Washington, says he believes the candidate has the goods to make it to the White House. "This country is really anxious to overcome the cynicism in politics," Stevens said. "I see in him the capacity to instill enthusiasm and hope particularly with young people."

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