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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Universal health insurance also found its way to the cutting-room floor. I asked about the universal plan recently passed in Massachusetts, which was a triumph of Obama-style bipartisanship. The plan requires everyone who earns three times the poverty rate to purchase health insurance and subsidizes those who earn less than that. Shouldn't health insurance be mandatory, like auto insurance, for those who can afford it? Obama wouldn't go there. "If there's a way of doing it voluntarily, that's more consonant with the American character," he said. "If you can't solve the problem without the government stepping in, that's when you make it mandatory."

After we jousted over several other issues, Obama felt the need to step back and defend himself. "Look, when I spoke out against going to war in Iraq in 2002, Bush was at 60-65% in the polls. I was putting my viability as a U.S. Senate candidate at risk. It looks now like an easy thing to do, but it wasn't then." He's right about that: more than a few of his potential rivals for the presidency in 2008 voted, as a matter of political expediency, to give Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq. Then Obama returned to the energy issue. "When I call for increased fuel-economy standards, that doesn't sit very well with the [United Auto Workers], and they're big buddies of mine ... Look, it's just not my style to go out of my way to offend people or be controversial just for the sake of being controversial. That's offensive and counterproductive. It makes people feel defensive and more resistant to changes."

Talk about defensive: this was the first time I had ever seen Obama less than perfectly comfortable. And his discomfort exposed the elaborate intellectual balancing mechanism that he applies to every statement and gesture, to every public moment of his life. "He's working a very dangerous high-wire act," Shelby Steele told me. "He's got to keep on pleasing white folks without offending black folks, and vice versa." Indeed, Obama faces a minefield on issues like the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts and affirmative action. "You're asking him to take policy risks? Just being who he is is taking an enormous risk."

There is a certain amount of political as well as psychological wisdom to what Steele says. The most basic rule of presidential politics is that you run against your predecessor. If Obama, 45, chooses to run in 2008, his consensus seeking would stand in stark contrast not only to the hyperpartisan Bush Administration but also to the histrionic, self-important style of baby-boom-generation politicians. Or it could work against him. An old-time Chicago politician told me Obama's thoughtfulness might be a negative in a presidential campaign. "You have to convey strength," he said, "and it's hard to do that when you're giving on-the-other-hand answers."

Meanwhile, back in our interview, I offer a slightly barbed olive branch: Maybe I'm asking for too much when I expect him to be bold on the issues, I suggest. Maybe my expectations for him are too high? "No, no," he says, and returns for a third time to energy policy--to Gore's tax-swap idea. "It's a neat idea. I'm going to call Gore and have a conversation about it. It might be something I'd want to embrace."

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