Obama: The audacity of hype

Barack Obama stands on stage with Oprah Winfrey and says he's in the race because of what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now." Does the Illinois senator's candidacy really mark a major advance for civil rights?

Obama isn't the first African-American with a good shot at the big job. That distinction goes to Colin Powell, whom many Republicans unsuccessfully had begged to run for office.

Is America ready for an African-American president? Sure. Is Obama ready to be president? That's another matter.

Four out of five voters say they'd happily support a black presidential candidate. It does not follow that they must choose Obama in '08. The Democrat will have more to offer in 2012 and 2016 than a mere three years in the U.S. Senate, which is what he has now. And if he's not the first African-American president, then someone else will be.

Obama has smarts and good looks, but that's not enough. His fuzzy talk about the audacity of hope and dreams only stokes suspicions of a substance deficit. So does his parading around with Oprah, queen of afternoon TV.

Only 8 percent of registered voters say they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate because he has Oprah's support, according to a USA Today poll. Meanwhile, 10 percent say they'd be more likely to vote against someone with her endorsement. So much for Oprah's power to sway voters.

Celebrity endorsements don't go far in the early-decision states, where relatively sophisticated electorates follow the issues. "In the four gatekeeper states &

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada &

the voters want to convey that they take their jobs seriously in a way that's substantive," Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at Brown University, told me.

In the end, organization matters more than glitz. The folks grabbing free tickets for the Oprah and Obama afternoon show don't much resemble the die-hards who trudge into the cold Iowa darkness for precinct caucuses.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are better-prepared on the ground.

"Oprah's not going to be funneling people into the appropriate rooms and telling them how to vote for second place on caucus night," says Lawless.

Obama calls himself the candidate of change, to which one responds, "Change from what?" Change from the failed Bush administration? All the candidates offer that kind of change, Republicans included. Change of presidential coloration? That prospect understandably would draw many blacks to the South Carolina primary. But other voters might take offense at a racial gambit from a candidate who hitherto has played "the man who transcends color."

Obama's skywriting about there being neither Democratic nor Republican solutions &

just American solutions &

is a great way to say nothing. When he comes down to earth with an actual policy prescription, the product is less impressive.

Take health care reform. Obama's plan is indeed neither Democratic nor Republican. It is simply unworkable. He would have the government help Americans buy coverage but not force them to sign up for it. Thus, a healthy person could avoid paying into the system until he gets seriously sick and needs others to subsidize his medical care. The setup would collapse.

It's striking that any Democratic candidate would put forth health care reform that doesn't envision universal coverage. This makes Obama's plan less ambitious than Republican Mitt Romney's program for Massachusetts.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at .

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