The Fresh Face

First-term Senator Barack Obama has the charisma and the ambition to run for President. But, as Joe Klein reports from the campaign trail, he's not quite ready to answer the tough questions

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The raising and dashing of expectations is at the heart of almost every great political drama. In Obama's case, the expectations are ridiculous. He transcends the racial divide so effortlessly that it seems reasonable to expect that he can bridge all the other divisions--and answer all the impossible questions--plaguing American public life. He encourages those expectations by promising great things--at least, in the abstract. "This country is ready for a transformative politics of the sort that John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt represented," he told me. But those were politicians who had big ideas or were willing to take big risks, and so far, Barack Obama hasn't done much of either. With the exception of a bipartisan effort with ultra-conservative Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to publish every government contract--a matter of some embarrassment to their pork-loving colleagues--his record has been predictably liberal. And the annoying truth is, The Audacity of Hope isn't very audacious.

A few weeks ago, I watched Obama give a speech about alternative energy to an audience gathered by at Georgetown University. It was supposed to be a big deal, one of three speeches MoveOn had scheduled to lay out its 2008 issues agenda, a chance for the best-known group of activist Democrats to play footsie with the party's most charismatic speaker, and vice versa. But it was a disappointment, the closest I had seen Obama come to seeming a standard-issue pol, one who declares a crisis and answers with Band-Aids. In this case, he produced a few scraggly carrots and sticks to encourage Detroit to produce more fuel-efficient cars. The audience of students and activists sensed the Senator's timidity and became palpably less enthusiastic as Obama went on. Just two days before, Al Gore gave a rousing speech in New York City in which he proposed a far more dramatic alternative energy plan: a hefty tax on fossil fuels that would be used, in turn, to reduce Social Security and Medicare taxes. I asked Obama why he didn't support an energy-tax increase married to tax relief for working Americans in the MoveOn speech or in The Audacity of Hope. "I didn't think of it," he replied, but sensing the disingenuousness of his response--talk of a gas tax is everywhere these days, especially among high-minded policy sorts--he quickly added,"I think it's a really interesting idea."

I pressed him on this. Surely he had thought about it? "Remember, the premise of this book wasn't to lay out my 10-point plan," Obama danced. "My goal was to figure out the common values that can serve as a basis for discussion." Sensing my skepticism, he tried again: "This book doesn't drill that deep in terms of policy ... There are a slew of good ideas out there. Some things end up on the cutting-room floor."

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