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.