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Sweet column: Obama reframes the experience debate. Michelle Obama on the stump.


White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama is acutely aware of the power of the narrative in politics. That's why the Illinois Democrat and his wife, Michelle, are very deliberately trying to define what experience means in the context of his 2008 presidential campaign and turn what now is a negative into an advantage.

At his first press conference as a presidential candidate, Obama, at the University of Iowa, criticized the "mainstream media" coverage of him, biting the hand that created the groundswell that enabled the 45-year-old freshman senator to run for president.

"One of the narratives that's established itself in the mainstream media is this notion that, 'Well, you know, Obama has a pretty good style. He can deliver a pretty good speech, but he seems to prioritize rhetoric over substance.' Now factually, that's incorrect," he said, mentioning his policy speeches and his issues-packed book, The Audacity of Hope.

Michelle Obama, often seen and little heard from, may prove to be a powerful surrogate for her husband. Sunday night she framed the argument better than her husband, stringing together the lines on his resume when she argued "a leader is more than a set of finite experiences.''

Are years working as a community organizer in Chicago, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and serving in the Illinois state Senate, for seven years, comparable, say, to the military and congressional experience of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? Or on par with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has also served in the House, been a United Nations ambassador and been a member of President Clinton's cabinet? Or more to the point, looking at his chief rivals, comparable to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) with more than six years in the Senate and two terms as first lady? Or on par with former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who just had a few years in the Senate under his belt when he launched a 2004 presidential bid?

"I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness in this, a certain audacity to this announcement," Obama said in his kickoff speech in Springfield on Saturday. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know the ways of Washington must change."

That's Obama's balancing act. Insider enough to demonstrate he can be commander in chief. Outsider enough to run a populist campaign against Washington and pull it off, criticizing the Senate establishment he has been a part of -- for only two years.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken last Friday through Saturday provided an empirical benchmark for what is Obama's most significant problem at the starting point of his bid. Survey respondents were asked about "reasons some say he would be bad." Some 40 percent of the respondents said Obama "lacks experience to be president," compared with only 8 percent saying he was "too liberal" or that they believed people would "disagree with him on issues." Only 7 percent took the "not qualified" option.

Michelle Obama, who, it turns out, is quite a speaker herself, seized on the experience issue when she spoke at a fund-raiser Sunday night at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive.

This is "his time," she said. "And don't be fooled by people who claim that it is not his time. We are all too familiar with those baseless claims. We've heard this spewed from the lips of rivals . . . every phase of our journey, he is not experienced enough, he should wait his turn. He is too young, he is not black enough, he is not white enough . . . he is too articulate. He can't raise the money.

"Don't be fooled by these claims because they are mere distractions. Distractions to keep us focused once again on what is not possible. Distractions that keep us mired in fear so that we are unable to focus on the real issues that are dragging us down as a nation. What we need right now is a leader. And a leader is more than a set of finite experiences.'' <

Only in the world of politics, Michelle Obama said, after she highlighted Obama's resume -- from street organizer to the Illinois Senate -- "would insiders dare to look at those accomplishments and dare to have the audacity to say he is not ready."

One of Obama's lines is that Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had plenty of experience and all that did was lead to the disaster in Iraq.

But that begs the real question: the lack of experience of the man who tapped them for their powerful positions, President Bush.


"I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know the ways of Washington must change."

This is the closest we've come to a "Can Mr. Smith make it to the White House?" Can he? We'll all just have to keep watching, I suppose.

Obama is slowly becoming a non factor in this race, regardless of what his racist wife says. The real next president announced he was running yesterday, and his name is Rudi Giuliani. It's about time we have a president whose last name ends in a vowel.

My non-racist friend... Obama also ends in a vowel.

Giuliani has to learn a thing or two about the First Amendment if he's going to be President. An article last Sunday in Chicago's other paper pointed out that as mayor, Rudi attempted to use the power of government to silence critics. While he was mayor, over 30 lawsuits were brought and won against New York City because of freedom-of-speech abuses. The first thing a dictator needs to do is control the flow of information, so this is a very ominous and scary sign.

"It's about time we have a president whose last name ends in a vowel." I agree, as long as that vowel is "a."

Obama is the Tiger Woods of political candidates and will go ALL THE WAY in 2008....Rudy has a lot of baggage to get the GOP nomination (look at his views on the social issues, Forbes wrote an article in the last few months about some of his shady business deals, and he's had 3 wives).

If Obama wants any shot at this, he'll keep his wife out of reach from a camera and microphone. She obviously has a chip on her shoulder. I'm still not sure the relevance at her statement "as a black man, he can get shot at a gas station". Was this a reference to inner city crime...where he could get shot by another black man? The statistics are overwhelming that he would get shot by another black man. Odd...

odd, no. But he might get shot by another black man in chicago where guns are illegal. odder. or shot in chicago by an illegal alien, where the alien is illegal and guns are illegal. even odder.

"Odder'? Wasn't he a character in Animal House?
And we're only in February. Within 3-4 months, the race issue will be prevalent. Obama has to stay calm and focused. His message of "hope" will take time to sink in with the public.

Message of hope, how about message of devide the nation and lie to the people, this Tony Rezko thing isnt over, and what about this cowards statement about the troops? Obambi will be working at starbucks when Hillary shreds his rookie behind.

One person's "chip"..., is another's confidence. She clearly believes in, and supports her man--as she should! I want a strong, thinking woman's influence. She said nothing mean-spirited, or untoward. Leave her be. Let the process unfold and the strongest team wins.

Barack Obama is an intelligent and engaging and clearly articulate man.

However, he lacks some things in terms of identifying with African American voters:

1. He is not a descendant of slaves. His father, who he did not know, was a Black African from Kenay, who abandoned his white mother, and did not have a slave history nor mentality.

2. He does not have the historical connection of the "great migration" of American Blacks from the South to the North. Most African American Chicago politicians have connections like Jesse Jackson Sr, Alice Tregay, former MWRD Prez Fuller from South Carolina or the Strogers from Arkansas and the other connection to the Catholic-Black community(ies) in Louisiana at Xavier University. The tar and featherings, the abject poverty, the fighting with white ethnic immigrants in Chicago. Obama has no connection to that history.

3. Barack Obama is not an American Black. This is not to be a joke, an insult, or be stereotypical but if you watch the video of Obama swaying back and forth--he does not have the same rythm or flow of the other Church goers at the Church. Obama did not grow up stepping. He did not grow up throwing raps or rhymes or insults. He didn't go to jookie parties on the South Side or even oldie stepper sets. When he was in the Senate, the other Black Senators like Donne Trotter and even Ricky Hendon used to make fun of him and mock him. Even Jesse Jackson Jr made jokes about him not being Black enough or Chicago enough.
His skin is Black but his culture is not. Barack Obama did not endure the racism of Chicago or the Deep South but the multicultural warmth of the Hawaiin sun and the wealth of white family and the opportunity of private schools.

4. He does not bond or provide a real role model because he is not from Chicago and did not have a hard life or poverty. He did not go to Chicago Public Schools bad or good. He did not go to Catholic or Baptist Chicago Schools. He did not get beat up in Bridgeport or have gangs follow him home from school. He never had to go to County Hospital.
He grew up a life of privilege and luck and opportunity. No doubt he has talent and worked hard. But his life was not one of difficulty or challenge. He did not know his dad, but unfortunately that is not atypical.
He went to elite private schools. His step dad was an International Businessman and he was world travelled by the time he was a teenager. His mom was white. He never knew nor dealt with any Black people. As a teenager his white grandparents raised him in Hawaii in a upper middle class environment. He never had to deal with gangs. He went to all good schools. He did not know dangerous streets. He never went without a meal. He went to private school in Indonesia. He went to private school in Hawaii. He was in a white and wealthy international world. He went to Columbia undergrad and Harvard law. He and his wife are wealthy get inside deals on books and property, get government or corporate travel. He is an elected official.
This is not a challenged person, again he worked hard and is talented but this idea that it is so odd he is where he is and had to overcome the name and being Black is absurd. Barack Obama had a life of privilege and opportunity. This is not the life of most Black kids in the South or West Side of Chicago. Not the biracial kids who are tall or good looking or at Latin School or U of C prep but the poor kids in the Chicago Public Schools. Barack Obama's upbringing and history is radically different and he is no more of a role model than any successful Ivy League white kid.

5. Yes, he has chosen to Black (maybe for political reasons but don't be so cynical. Clearly chose a lovely Black wife and has Black(er) kids. So he is Black. BUT HE IS ALSO WHITE. WITH A WHTIE MOTHER WHO RAISED HIM. AND WHITE GRANDPARENTS WHO RAISED HIM. HE NEVER DEALT WITH BLACK PEOPLE UNTIL HE WAS AN ADULT.
He represented a Black (primarily Senatorial District) that is relatively unchanged because of his representation (still many chronic problems)

6. There is also a double standard of support. Obama can endorse White candidates over Black in other states but we must back him because he is Black. Emil Jones says that Blacks must go with Barack because he has a somewhat Black skin color (there are Hispanics darker than Barack Obama) but Obama backs Mayor Daley over a Black candidate (with a much more compelling story than Barack---Dorothy Brown had a large family, illiterate parents who got educated later in life, mother was a maid, dad was a farmer and factory worker, poverty, religious, dark skinned black, South, real racism, real poverty, real overcoming of obstacles) Now, Obama can back Mayor Daley but don't than play the race card to say we must now back Obama. There is a hypocricy and Double standard here.

7. Obama seems rightfully justified in talking about the genocide in Sudan or the corruption in Kenya. But he is silent on the corruption in Chicago under Daley or the torture in Chicago in Areas 2 and 3 under Jon Burge or the genocide of African American children being murdered, in jail and in a system that seems not to work. Obama is silent at home and in with the powers that be.

8. Obama is NOT a historical first. There is nothing that unique about his candidacy except that the media loves him and he is being hyped and like Biden says he is "clean". BUT the first African American to run for President was Shirley Chisolm a Congressowman from Texas when it was historic and different, Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for President and actually did very well, Rev. Al Sharpton ran for President, and with the Republicans Alan Keyes ran for President and had a small but fervent conservative following and did well in debates, General Colin Powell was almost recruited. So Obama is not a first and really not that unique, the uniqueness is in the number of media stories. Is it because he is light skinned? or more acceptable to whites? or he is a good speaker? What is historic or unique here that was not with Colin Powell, Alan Keyes or Cong Chisolm? Why isn't the darker skinned JC Watts loved by the media or even Democrat Harold Ford?

9. Most people I talk too don't know his stands on the issues or what he really thinks or means or does, just that he is different or represents hope. Was he different in endorsing Todd Stroger or just doing the partisan line? Was he different in endorsing Mayor Daley or doing a good political move? Was he different or reform in wanting to pay the pastor $10,000 or month or was he just like any other politician? What about his fundraising or Tony Rezko? What are his stands on issues?

10. He is more hopeful or optimisitic or not negative yet his operatives and the media destroyed Blair Hull because of his wife and he accepted Congressman Jackson making jokes about wife beating even though that was not what it was, he admitted to drug use but Jack Ryan's sex life with his wife became the biggest story and forced him out of the race, should we explore Barack Obama's sex life? It was fair game for Jack Ryan. Is it negative to ask Barack Obama about his private sex life because he is kind of Black or hopeful or a Democrat but not for Jack Ryan. Obama benefitted from the negative attacks on Blair Hull, Jack Ryan, and the maneuvers of Daley consultant and guru Axelrod.
Obama was the beneficiary of a brutal media and good political operatives.

I am uncertain what is historic, different or hopeful. It seems more of the same with a better and maybe slightly darker veneer.

Luis C, I meant the right kind of vowel, not some rastafarian or swahili name.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 15, 2007 9:50 AM.

Sweet blog special: Obama to get Virginia Gov. Kaine endorsement Saturday. Why so quiet, Gov. Blagojevich? was the previous entry in this blog.

Sweet column: Read the Obama camp e-mails to woo hired hand. In South Carolina, Clinton, Obama, Edwards bid for same consultant. is the next entry in this blog.

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