Friday, December 15, 2006

Now begins the process of denting the Obama halo

Picture the scene: a heroic Democratic celebrity senator from a big Midwestern state ventures out on the campaign trail to test the presidential waters, far in advance of the actual campaign, and is besieged by the fawning multitudes. As one press report puts it, “residents in one town hosed down their housefronts in preparation for his arrival…he was greeted with extraordinary warmth…Voters lined up for autographs and snapshots…his folk stature gives him tremendous believability with his audiences…”

I am referring, of course, not to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, but to the man who in 1983 was deemed to have the right stuff for the White House – Senator John Glenn of Ohio, the former gung-ho, can-do astronaut/folk hero who was immortalized on celluloid in The Right Stuff. The quotes above are drawn from a Time magazine article which appeared on June 20 of that year. The movie, starring Ed Harris as Glenn, also appeared that year.

Yet, in the winter of the following year, it was Glenn who disappeared. The purportedly perfect candidate wilted quickly once he was exposed for the first time to the hothouse climate of an actual presidential primary campaign. Which is just my way of saying that all this breathless 24/7 talk about Obama might prove to be a waste of time.

I could be wrong, obviously. But, for the moment, it’s interesting to note that the inevitable dynamics are beginning to take hold. The more Obama inches toward an actual candidacy, the greater the public scrutiny, and the greater the risks of denting that halo on his head. It’s all happening already. When Maureen Dowd is writing about your big ears, and Rush Limbaugh is laughing about how Maureen Dowd is writing about your big ears, it's clear that the honeymoon is over.

Memo to Obama: Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

Policywise, he is already being attacked from both the left and the right. David Sirota, a liberal Democratic activist and blogger, says that Obama may well turn out to be a willing stooge of the corporate special interests that routinely corrupt Washington. And, just a couple days ago, conservative commentator Larry Kudlow wrote that Obama is “an extremely liberal-left politician” who stands against those selfsame corporate interests. Obama may have been in the Senate for only two years, but already he has enough of a voting record to provide ammunition to both sides of the ideological divide.

And for those Americans who profess to care about policy but who, in their heart of hearts, find that stuff to be tad dry, there is already a scandal to latch onto. Or maybe it’s just a perceived scandal. No matter; in politics, perception is akin to reality.

It turns out that the Up With Hope celebrity got down in the muck with a shady dude. As the press back home in Chicago has been reporting lately, Obama swung a lucrative real estate deal with a longtime friendly fund-raiser – one Antoin “Tony” Rezko – who, at the time of the deal, also happened to be the target of a wide-ranging federal investigation. Today, Rezko is in worse shape, having been indicted two months ago on charges of seeking to extort campaign donations and kickbacks from firms that wanted to do business with the state of Illinois.

Rezko says he is innocent. A court of law will determine that. But, for Obama, the court of public opinion has more flexible rules of evidence. A tainted image can be enough to pull a politician down off his pedestal; it doesn’t take much these days, in the presidential campaign realm, to go from hero to zero. From Obama’s perspective, it can’t be a good thing for voters to find out that, in financing his deal with Rezko, he drew on the book advance from his stirring ’04 tome, The Audacity of Hope.

The Rezko deal itself, which appeared to be a cleverly contrived plan to get Obama a sweet purchase on a home for his family, is hardly a fatal political embarrassment. Even though Obama himself acknowledges that Rezko was probably trying to strengthen their “relationship” by doing the senator a favor, this was no taxpayer-financed boondoggle. And Obama has reacted smartly to the press reports; rather than sounding defensive, he has been cranking out mea culpas to anyone who will listen. For instance, he told the Chicago Tribune that it was “stupid” and “boneheaded” to business with a guy who “was already under a cloud of concern.” Indeed, the best way for a politician to defuse a story is to ‘fess up to it.

Nevertheless, for Obama, this episode is a likely portent of what is to come. He has already sought to sell himself as a potentially transformative leader, a rare beacon of hope at a time when most Americans see their country heading in the wrong direction. Any candidate who aspires to that image is setting the bar pretty high for himself. All the more reason why his inevitable policy compromises in the Senate will be placed under the microscope - and why all his past dealings in the bare-knuckled world of Chicago politics will be closely scrutinized.

After all, in many American environs, Chicago politics is hardly a term of endearment.